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Sixty seconds on . . . following the science

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2014 (Published 19 May 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m2014

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Rapid Response:

Blaming the scientists

Dear Editor,

The blame-game between scientists and politicians in the UK has become more brazen this week. On Tuesday 19th May, the incoming president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, urged UK ministers to avoid placing undue responsibility for political decisions on scientists, and to instead be more transparent about the advice they were given in relation to COVID-19 control. When asked about Smith’s statement, Work and Pensions Secretary, Therese Coffey, was adamant that politicians could point to the scientists when considering errors in the UK government’s response, emphasising that “if the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong.”

Reflecting on the way in which scientists have been engaged (or not engaged) by politicians in a number of countries, it is hard not to raise questions about how scientists are being used in the COVID-19 pandemic. To blame when errors in policies are questioned? As a distraction when death rates surge? Adding credibility to political decisions? To understand why an independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was set up to replace the official SAGE, and why it is not surprising that scientists are now being blamed by government officials, the UK’s engagement of scientists is best satirised.

Convene a few scientists that are well qualified, but be mindful to avoid contrarian views. Maintain a semblance of diversity by including at least a couple of women. Don’t bother about other dimensions of diversity such as ethnicity; you will struggle to find professors in public health universities that are ethnically diverse, and the search will not be worth your time as many seem quite happy to think of diversity simply in terms of male-female balance.

After you have identified this panel of independent scientists, make sure that they are outnumbered by “your own people” in the advisory group. The latter are those that think like you, owing to shared vested interests or long-standing collegial relations. Bringing your own people into the advisory group makes it critical to keep its membership and deliberations a secret.

Once the group starts meeting, you should expect the independent scientists to work for many hours without any extra pay. This will distract them from noticing that the bus that you plan to throw them under is racing towards them. Then decide on a catch phrase that you will use again and again to shroud your policy decisions in the so-called scientific advice. You can choose from phrases such as “guided by the science” or “based on expert advice”.

Finally, when things start going wrong, the scientists will come in very handy to blame or to divert the public’s attention towards. At particularly problematic points in your country’s epidemic – such as the death toll reaching a new height – sacrifice one of the most eminent scientists on your panel to a controversy. Here tactical engagement of allies in the press is key. Alternatively, get ministers to talk about incorrect advice given by scientific advisors while ignoring demands to reveal what the advice was.

Competing interests: No competing interests

22 May 2020
Mishal S Khan
Associate Professor
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
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