Keep scientists in the research room and out of politics | Fiona Fox

Matt Hancock’s views about the independent experts advising government, detailed in the Lockdown Files, are revealing. They were “totally unreliable” and “wacky” (Dame Kate Bingham); a “totally offside… loudmouth” (Sir Jeremy Farrar); and a “prize idiot” (Prof Jon Deeks); while Prof Sharon Peacock, the amazing scientist who set up Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), was deemed “a total outrage”, because she didn’t warn him months earlier that the Alpha variant was coming (revealing Hancock’s misunderstanding of the work of these genome sequencers). Nor was it just Hancock who seemed to view these pesky scientists as an inconvenience. When asked to deal with Farrar, one of Hancock’s special advisers replied: “What is your ask? Get rid or neutralise?”

Now I’m not averse to a bit of ripe language myself and I am mindful that these messages were intended to be private. But they do reinforce my belief that science and politics are best when bathed in the clear blue waters of separation. We need scientific advice to government at times of crisis and I think Sage did that very well. But the rolling of science into politics through government communications is where things get problematic.

One of the problems is that politicians and their media advisers tend to view scientific experts brought in to advise government the same as politicians. In her book about the pandemic, Kate Bingham, the independent life sciences expert brought in to run the vaccine taskforce, described a confrontation with Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s director of communications, who stopped her doing media interviews on a paper she had published in the the Lancet, a scientific journal. When Bingham challenged the decision, Cain explained that it was not OK that she was getting more media coverage than some ministers, demonstrating how the public interest in hearing from the best scientists comes second to government media strategy.

The other element is a deep-seated desire among politicians and their media advisers to control the narrative. I recently discussed this with Mathew Taylor on his podcast. He readily admitted that when he was Tony Blair’s chief strategy adviser, any independent scientists who strayed into their purview were drawn into their media management. I accept this is often driven by a genuine desire to ensure the public are getting a single clear public health message. But it’s also about messaging that will deliver the popular vote come the next election. These are perfectly reasonable communications objectives for politicians, but on both counts they don’t sit well with science. Science is messy, uncertain, incomplete and contested – rarely amenable to the simple messaging favoured by government comms. As an endeavour that relies on the objective and impartial testing of the evidence, science has to be separate from political bias to serve its purpose.

Of course there is a quid pro quo here. If we are asking governments to loosen the reins and let scientists be scientists, there should also be an onus on scientists advising government not to stray too far into politics or demand particular policies. That scientists advise and politicians decide was espoused by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance regularly. But I’m not sure it was ever fully understood by the public and policymakers or, sadly, by some scientists. I’d like to think that one lesson we could all agree to learn is that the public should have more clarity in future about who is producing the evidence, who provides the advice and who decides policy.

There is a bit in the WhatsApps where Hancock is furious that Farrar has appeared on Sky News without getting permission from government communications: “He needs to be either inside the tent and onside or outside and commenting.” Luckily for us all, the chief medical officer and the government chief scientific adviser encouraged the independent academics on Sage to speak to the media about their science. The scientists advising government were among the nation’s best experts on this crisis. “Neutralising” them or making them choose between advising government and sharing their science with the wider public was not in the public interest and fortunately didn’t happen. In fact, great scientists regularly explaining complex and uncertain science to the UK’s great science journalists almost certainly saved many lives.

My hero of the Lockdown Files is Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 and chair of the Wellcome Trust. Despite being warned that she was “ferocious” and would probably view a call from a politician urging her to tell Wellcome’s director to shut up as unacceptable interference with its independence, James Bethell, the health minister, went ahead. Later, he reported his failure to Hancock: “She defended his right to say whatever he liked.” Now there’s a woman who sees clearly where the lines are drawn.

We all need to see the scientific evidence and advice but we also need to see where this ends and political decisions begin. Allowing politicians and their media advisers to be in charge of communicating both doesn’t work. Let’s find a better way before the next crisis.

The Guardian