Philip Ball has an interesting article about UK science advice called [q]uiet, uncritical, obedient: how the UK’s scientists failed the pandemic test. It make some good points about there appearing to have been collusion between the science advisors and the government, that scientists seemed reluctant to present certain options given the likely biases of the government, and how they failed to speak out when there was an apparent disconnect between the government’s actions and their words.
Although I think there are many reasons to criticise the science advice that was given, there was a framing in the article that I largely disagreed with. For example, we keep getting told that there isn’t some linear relationship between scientific advice and decision making; there are many other factors that play important roles. If so, how can we then judge the scientific advice on the basis of the decisions that were made? What about all the other factors that will have influenced the decision making?
The article also implied that the scientific community needs to wake up, and that [a] policy of appeasement, normalisation and objective detachment has not worked. One problem is that the scientific advisors are not really representatives of the scientific community. They are mostly individuals who have either volunteered to sit on a committee, or have been appointed to what is essentially a political role. There were plenty of scientists who were speaking out and challenging the government’s decisions.
Also, if the government wants advice from those who will speak truth to power and will challenge them, then they can aim to appoint such people and can encourage them to do so. Of course, people in those positions can choose to speak out, but if they’re discouraged from doing so, then it seems likely that these positions will be filled by those who are pre-disposed to not do so.
I do agree with the article that how science advice has faired during the pandemic bodes ill for the climate crisis. What I don’t quite agree with is the suggestion that somehow the scientific community needs to work out how to fix this. The article itself highlights that we have a libertarian, populist government who will be pre-disposed to prefer certain options. I don’t think it’s the job of the scientific community to work out how to counter the biases of the government that we’ve, collectively, chosen to elect.
I also agree with the article that scientists should be careful of how they might be used by the government. As suggested in the article, scientists will be blamed if necessary. This is why we should be careful of “follow the science” type of rhetoric. We should be clear that the scientific advice is information that can be used by the government to make decisions. However, it’s not the only relevant information and the responsibility for making these decisions lies with the government, not with the scientific advisors.
If we want scientists to speak truth to power and to challenge the government, we should support those who do, we should put pressure on the government to appoint advisors who will do so, and we should feel free to vote for those who we think will aim to be properly informed when making important decisions. Of course scientists have a responsibility to provide reliable information, but they’re not responsible for the decisions that are then made and I think we should be careful of suggesting otherwise.