Last week, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ wrote on the role of scientific advisers in the UK Government’s decision making. As a follow-up, we took the opportunity to ask further questions on this topic in our latest poll on Wednesday this week. In particular, we wanted to know where the public thought responsibility lay with the scientific advice provided to the government. In the event that the advice followed turns out to be wrong, who is culpable?
Altogether, a solid majority of respondents do not think the Government Minister would be responsible for this advice. This response may be worrying because it could give the Government tremendous leeway. In theory, a Minister may be able to exculpate himself on the basis that they were given poor government advice.
In practice, however, it appears the public will simply instead believe that the scientific advice was ignored. Asked why they thought the UK Government allowed the coronavirus pandemic to spread so severely throughout the country, respondents believed it was largely because the initial scientific advice was not followed.
The default assumption of the public is to assume that the scientific advice given is correct. That is, of course, why the appeal to science is so persuasive. We asked a similar but differently phrased question about responsibility, where a majority of respondents believed a minister of government is responsible because he has to decide whether or not to follow it.
In the future, to be more precise, we will either rephrase the first answer code to ‘The Government Ministers who decide to follow this science advice’ or rephrase the second answer code to ‘The scientists and academics who decide what advice to provide.’ Nevertheless, this difference in results compared to our first question tentatively suggests that the public believes the Government must follow the scientific advice given to it, and it is only responsible if it decides to ignore the advice but it is not responsible for the scientific advice that turns out to have been wrong.
For this reason, respondents to our poll overwhelmingly agreed to a statement suggesting that scientific advisers should play a greater role in government decision-making.
And yet, in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government has claimed that it has always followed the scientific advice it was given. In this instance, it may be that the scientific advice was wrong as, initially, it was determined ‘by science’ that a lockdown would be a mistake. Whether or not the public have followed and realised this failure is not clear.
In the press, meanwhile, this discrepancy has brought further scrutiny to the scientific advice provided to the government and, in particular, to SAGE, the advisory group of scientific advisers. The public intuitively understands the needs for this greater scrutiny. Respondents to our poll clearly indicated that the advice given by SAGE to the government should be made public.
And they also supported the decision by Sir David King to set up a rival SAGE group.
After all, if the public is to demand a greater role for science and for scientific advisers in the formation of policy that will affect their lives, it will also demand as high a degree of transparency as possible for those who take on this greater role. That would be just.