Scientists must be allowed to take independent decisions without fear of recriminations, the head of the Royal Society has warned after a cabinet minister appeared to blame “wrong” science for mistakes made in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
The work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, made the comments while being challenged on the government’s response to the crisis, including what was done – or not – to protect care homes. She told Sky News: “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision.”
No 10 swiftly distanced itself from her comments but they raised concerns that members of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) were being hung out to dry.
Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, said: “The one thing that should not happen is if scientists feel that by giving very frank advice, they’re somehow going to be penalised or blamed later. That will inhibit them from being very frank and you don’t want to inhibit frankness from scientists because you really want to know what is their best estimate of what’s going on at the moment …
“I would say this is not a healthy debate to have, I think, scientists should stick to advice and then it is for government to accept the advice and decide what to do with it.”
The Nobel prize-winning biochemist said the government was right to disassociate itself from Coffey’s comments.
“This isn’t to mean that scientists are always going to get everything right, far from it,” he said. “They will have got things wrong but the beauty of science is that as new evidence comes in you change your understanding of it. And in the end the only way to progress out of this pandemic is through science.”
When faced with criticism of its handling of the pandemic, the government has consistently responded with the refrain that it is “following the science”. Ramakrishnan said that while that was possible in some instances, with physical distancing for example, when evidence of the benefits were clear, it was not always so simple.
“The science is complicated and putting it into policies also complicated and so you can’t just say you’re following the science in every case,” he said. “I think what ministers should say is, ‘we’re heeding the science, we’re heeding the science advice, we’re considering it when we make our decisions’ – that would be a more honest thing.”
A member of Sage, who did not want to be named, also stressed that decisions were ultimately the responsibility of ministers.
“Politicians are in charge, and they decide what advice they get,” they said. “Scientists like me are invited to give advice and have no power to enact any decisions. They don’t have to accept the advice, and indeed should take a wider view than the science when making decisions – they are elected by the population to take decisions on our behalf.”
Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, who quit the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which reports to the Home Office, last year over the alleged “political vetting” of panel members by the government, wrote a paper published in the Nature journal last week arguing the government was not following the science, which is not always set in stone, but it was “‘survival of the ideas that fit”.
He told the Guardian: “Science just isn’t like that and so the idea that they were following the science was wrong. And now that they’ve been criticised for their steps they have taken, it is bizarre that they’ve tried to say that it was wrong science that led them astray rather than their own decisions.”
Stevens said that, during his time advising the government on drugs policy, he had seen civil servants “tell ministers the story they want to be told”. He highlighted comments by Prof John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who advises Sage on infectious modelling, saying they did not carry out detailed modelling for a lockdown originally “because it didn’t seem to be on the agenda”, as “politics leading the science rather than the other way around”.