The Role of Scientific Advisers

May 1, 2020
Healthcare | Science | The Environment

The coronavirus pandemic has placed scientific advisers at the forefront of government policymaking. In a matter of months, nearly every household in the United Kingdom has heard the names of Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and even Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson. The Government has placed these men front and centre during its response to this public health crisis, defending its actions with an appeal to authority––the authority of scientific expertise. With every critical decision, the Prime Minister and other members of the Government have said that they are ‘following the science.’

Some of this scientific advice, however, has come under scrutiny. The initial decision to gradually rather than immediately move towards a lockdown was, it was argued, based on scientific evidence. This decision was in part due to the fear of lockdown ‘fatigue,’ whereby the Government was advised that the capacity of the public to tolerate a lockdown was tenuous. In fact, it was the evidence for this advice that turned out to be tenuous. Instead, the public has so overwhelmingly approved of the lockdown and its extension that we have argued that it is the public, not the Government, that has driven and will continue to drive this lockdown.

Another piece of scientific advice now under scrutiny is whether the Government originally intended to pursue a strategy of ‘herd immunity.’ The Government has denied this. Yet, the original strategy of gradually moving towards a lockdown and then the initial justification for the lockdown (i.e. ‘flattening the curve’) both suggested that the Government’s original end point for this crisis was for a majority of the population to be infected. In other words, herd immunity.

A majority of respondents to our latest poll on Sunday still think this will be the UK’s end goal, while 40% of respondents think the goal of the lockdown is to halt completely the spread of the coronavirus before it infects a majority of the population.

This suggests confusion among the broader public about what exactly is going on. Does the Government even have a strategy now? Only a quarter of respondents to our poll think so.

In March, with our first coronavirus poll and after taking a look at the situation in Italy, we warned that the public, while trusting of scientific advice generally, was not prepared for the risks involved with its original strategy. After the government reversed its position on the basis of a new paper by Imperial College of London, the polling we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted have consistently shown that most members of the public think the Government acted too late in setting a lockdown.

At the same time, the Government is broadly experiencing high levels of approval and about half of respondents to our poll think the Government has handled this crisis well. 37%, by contrast, think the Government has not handled this crisis well.

These numbers perhaps suggest a broadly forgiving public. Contradictory beliefs, such as believing that the Government acted too late or has no strategy to end the lockdown and believing that the Government has handled the crisis well, can sometimes have no explanation.

One thing, however, is clear is that the public still broadly believes in the role of scientific advice. Reflecting on the current experience, a strong majority (almost 70%) of respondents to our most recent poll think the UK Government should ‘always’ or ‘nearly always’ follow the advice of its scientific advisers. Only 20% say it the Prime Minister and his Government should listen to the scientific advisers but come to their own decisions.

In the future, we will ask different variations of this question and follow up questions. If this result holds, however, it will have extraordinary implications in another critical area of government policy: the environment. To our next question in our Sunday survey, 61% said, yes, the Government should have a Chief Environmental Officer. Only 11% said no.

Such eagerness may be troubling for some. After all, scientific advisers are not elected officials. Political authority does not rest with them. It rests with Parliament. However, if a public is so trusting of advice deemed scientific, it may eventually be that authority virtually is in the hands of the scientists––even if the scientific advice, as we have seen, have sometimes gotten it wrong.

Data tables for this research can be found here. To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.