Boris Johnson’s Scientists Are on Tap, Not on Top

Therese Raphael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As Boris Johnson returns to politics this week, he faces what may be the biggest decision of his political life: how and when to ease lockdown restrictions. 

Speaking in front of Downing Street on Monday morning, the British prime minister said that as he weighs the next steps, “We will be relying as ever on the science to inform us, as we have from the beginning.” But a firestorm over the inner workings of the scientific body advising the government on its response to the deadly coronavirus is colliding with growing pressure, especially from Johnson’s own supporters, to move quickly to restart the economy. The two pressures are inextricably linked.

Navigating them will call for Johnson to act decisively and transparently to maintain public trust during the worst crisis the country has faced since World War II. Johnson’s message Monday married his trademark optimism with both the humility and caution of a leader who has just spent a month in a personal battle with what he called “an unexpected and invisible mugger.” 

He also promised that future decisions will be taken “with the maximum possible transparency.” That is long overdue and one way he can demonstrate success is by shining a light on the workings of his key scientific advisory committee. 

Since the coronavirus outbreak arrived in the U.K., Johnson and his cabinet colleagues have hammered home that they are being “guided by the science.” It is meant to be reassuring in a doctor-knows-best kind of way. But membership of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE has been kept secret. And revelations — published in the Guardian newspaper on Friday — that Johnson’s closest political adviser took part have thrown its advice into question.

Almost predictably, the man in the middle of the latest furor is Dominic Cummings. There is no more controversial figure in British politics. The prime minister’s studiously enigmatic adviser, memorably portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV film on the Brexit campaign, was the mastermind behind the Brexit campaign and then of Johnson’s resounding December election victory.

Cummings has only seemed to accrue more power, and mystique, since then. Depending on whom you speak to, Cummings is admired, feared, despised, or viewed with any combination of the three. 

His presence at meetings has provoked a violent reaction. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet medical journal, who has been a critic of both the government’s response and those advising it, called on the SAGE scientific experts to resign immediately if the report is true: “You have forfeited any claim you might have had to providing independent scientific advice to government,” he tweeted. Many others in the scientific community echoed the sentiment.

The problem is SAGE is shrouded in such secrecy that it may be impossible to ever know for sure what influence Cummings had, if any. The real picture is likely to be more complicated than either side of the debate over Cummings’s presence has been willing to acknowledge.

Non-scientists regularly serve on scientific advisory committees, but the presence of someone as pivotal politically as Cummings is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, as the government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser David King noted. Still, scientists can’t necessarily be faulted for allowing a political adviser into the room. Influencing policy sometimes means working closely with the powerful. But, humans being humans, that can get messy. You only needed to see the look of nausea on the face of Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, as Donald Trump suggested that Americans may want to treat the virus by injecting themselves with disinfectant.

In the U.K., scientific advice is generally fed through to policy makers by government experts and scientific advisory committees, such as SAGE. It’s certainly possible to find cases in the past when politicians sought to influence or quash advice they didn’t like, but a wide-ranging 2017 study of such committees concluded that political interference was rare. 

By the Guardian’s count, there were 21 distinguished scientists on the SAGE committee, experts whom one would expect to be robust in putting forth their views; it’s a stretch to think they were all somehow following Cummings’s lead. His own writings suggest such a reverence for precisely this kind of expertise that it is difficult to believe he would have treated this group with the contempt he might a room of special political advisers had a different consensus emerged.

The problem is less Cummings's presence and more the lack of disclosure. Covid-19 puts a particular committee at the center of the government’s response and life-and-death decisions. The stakes couldn’t be higher and, whatever the scientific advice, science nearly always involves uncertainty; ultimately the decisions taken are political. The public deserves to know who is providing the input and also what assumptions are being made. Of course, none of this would be so controversial if the government’s response hadn’t been marred by so many missteps, from its early embrace of “herd immunity” to reversals on testing and guidance for personal protective equipment.

Johnson’s own principle of transparency now demands relaxing the secrecy around SAGE. In a recent letter to a parliamentary committee, SAGE’s chair, Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance, said that the “decision not to disclose” committee membership was made upon the advice of the Center for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which deals mainly with terrorist threats and provides advice to keep businesses secure from external threats. He defended the policy by saying it “contributes toward safeguarding individual members’ personal security and protects them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice.”

That justification feels forced. SAGE members are free to publicize their own involvement if they like, so how bad can the risk be?

All of this secrecy runs counter to efforts by governments and scientists around the world, who are furiously sharing data and models and learning from each other about how to fight this virus. Transparency can help speed discovery and, where needed, course corrections. But under current practices it’s impossible to know, or scrutinize the basis on which U.K. decisions are made, especially where that policy makes Britain an outlier.

Scientists have an even more important role to play in the new coronavirus reality we will all have to live with. But, as the saying goes, they ought to be “on tap, not on top.” If Johnson is to rebuild some of the trust that has been lost in his absence, being clear about the nature of the advice and who is giving it is a good place to start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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