However, at every turn, the government told us it was “following science”. His strategy, we are told, is based on “the best science available”. While scientific evidence may be a valid justification for government action (or inaction), the relationship between science, politics and society is far more complex than the government would have us believe.
To begin with, the “best science available” does not exist. Scientists regularly disagree on different issues, from theoretical approaches to methodologies and results, including decisions on what kind scientific advice taken into account is highly political. The individuals, disciplines and institutions that are invited to the table reflect the distribution of research funds, prestige and influence, as well as the values and goals of politicians and decision makers. In the area of austerity, for example, the former coalition government has ignored the warnings of many macroeconomists for evidence to support its worldview. If there is no “magic money tree”, there is certainly no “best science” magic tree either.
The purpose of scientific advisory committees such as Sage is to distill existing scientific research so that it can inform policy. But the mandate of such a council is limited by the questions that politicians ask themselves in the first place. In emergencies, these questions are less like “What is the best science [X]? “And more like” What type of intervention is likely to prevent [Y]? What policymakers choose to prioritize at these times is a matter of political judgment. Is it the life of the elderly and the sick? Is it the economy? Or are these political endorsement notes? These decisions are important. It also matters what questions politicians do not do ask, for example, whether the coronavirus will disproportionately affect people from black communities and ethnic minorities, or whether the effects of isolation will be worse for women.
Politicians tend to favor the type of science that matches their existing preferences. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to the taking of data, pejoratively called “policy-based evidence”. But it doesn’t have to be so extreme. For example, studies suggesting a very high transmission rate for Covid-19 have come from China since January, and Neil Ferguson, whose team was behind the study cited as precipitating the change of course from Great Britain. Britain in managing the pandemic, first sent its report to a Cobra meeting on January 24. In February, studies suggesting that a substantial proportion of Covid-19 cases may be asymptomatic have appeared in scientific journals. There was already evidence to support general social distancing. It took a change of political orientation for this type of data to be presented as “the science “.
This tells us something important about the social nature of scientific knowledge. Scientific models are estimates, not oracles. Scientists can tell politicians the conditions under which their models are likely to work, but they are not responsible for creating those conditions. Blaming epidemiologists for the consequences of the government’s Covid-19 strategy amounts to blaming climatologists for not preventing the climate crisis. Scientists can provide evidence, but acting on it requires political will.
With regard to policy making, economic and political considerations tend to prevail. Britain’s delay in imposing a foreclosure is at least in part due to the desire to postpone, if not avoid, an economic recession. The government’s decision to keep the schools open was motivated by its desire to allow people to continue working. The refusal to join the EU supply system for PPE was probably intended to favor local suppliers and avoid being perceived as not “delivering” Brexit.
The only type of “science” whose role in government response is unclear is the science of investigation and public opinion training. SPI-B’s list of evidence, the Sage Subcommittee on Behavioral and Social Interventions, lists 16 polls and surveys conducted between January and March, monitoring risk awareness, perception and approval of the public for different types of government intervention. Of course, it can be argued that public approval is necessary for the measures to be effective: if people disagree with certain measures, they are more likely to bypass them. But this ignores an important aspect of the relationship between science, politics and public opinion: people’s views on science are shaped by the way the facts are presented in official guidelines and in the media.
In this sense, public health councils – which for most of March focused on hand washing and isolating symptomatic cases – could have led to a self-fulfilling prophecy: if people had believed at official directives, it is not surprising that they would have been reluctant to support a tighter lockdown and social distancing. It was only after a number of independent experts, including Lancet editor Richard Horton, began to openly question the government’s strategy, that public opinion moved massively. in favor of a lock.
As long as the results of these investigations and the minutes of Sage and Cobra remain confidential, there is no way to say exactly how the perception of public approval for different types of measures has shaped government strategy. But focusing attention on only one element of this chain – “science” – avoids questions of political responsibility. How science is turned into politics depends on political and economic calculations, as well as on the moral and ideological commitments of politicians, political parties and political advisers. It is rarely, if ever, a question of “science”.
• Jana Bacevic is a sociologist at the University of Cambridge