UK scientific advice 'lacks independence and transparency'

UK scientific advice ‘lacks independence and transparency’

Researchers examined the Covid-19 response and recommended that the nation separate scientific advice from government

The UK’s system for providing scientific advice to governments must be more independent and transparent, according to academics who have studied the role of scientific advice and how it works during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Assistant Professor Holly Jarman and colleagues from the University of Michigan School of Public Health write in a paper published in the British Medical Journal that scientific advice should also be recognized as separate from government decisions. The paper analyzed scientific advice and Covid-19 responses to countries in the United Kingdom, as well as France and Germany.

Weaknesses in the UK system [of scientific advice] They are a lack of independence among advisers – they are chosen by the government and answer questions asked by the government – and a general lack of transparency, they wrote on September 7.

They wrote: “The UK’s civil service and government agencies have traditionally not enjoyed the transparency or autonomy of the central executive, and the government’s ability to influence it has been increased for decades by every party.” UK Science Advice is no exception.

“The result is a distinct series of UK policy failures in which decisions were made too quickly, by too few people, and with weak and unquestionable justifications.”

The UK’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) provided “advice under government authority”, according to the authors, who criticized the government for getting “the advice they wanted” and suggested that Sage sometimes “appears to anticipate government objections”.

For example, they wrote: “Lectures from the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies and Parliamentary Reports show that the UK government primarily wants to know the potential impact of various policies on the spread of the virus and the consequences of its spread for health care. He was not interested in broader advice from the social sciences. about, for example, healthy behavior or trade-offs between different policies.”

On the issue of the transparency of the broader scientific advice the government received, the academics wrote: “Both in France and the UK, high-ranking bureaucrats, advisers and politicians have crafted advice using consulting firms, marginalizing public health experts and agencies, and relying on private advisers.”

They said that while secrecy could mean civil servants and advisers were able to give “unpalatable advice” to leaders, it also allowed “politicians to try to blame others.”

Hakim in the spotlight

Sage was also heavily criticized for the confidentiality of her membership and advice in the early days of the pandemic, but she opened up on both cases later, which the newspaper admitted.

“If the transparency of the UK system has improved during the pandemic, autonomy has not,” the authors wrote.

Its experts were “stationed within the committees whose competencies and membership are under the control of the government, and whose secretariat was provided by the government, and headed by the chief scientific advisor to the government.”

Regarding potential improvements, the article suggested that the UK government learn from Germany’s scientific advice system, where there is “a clear separation between scientific advice and policy decisions”, which they say has “contributed to public confidence in the pandemic response by communicating that government leaders have not been “. distortion of science.”

“The political role of transparent scientific advice is not only to enable policy making; it is also to enable accountability for failures, such as those we saw in the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Finally, the authors list questions for the ongoing national investigation into the government’s response to Covid-19:

  • Why has it taken so long to increase the transparency of Sage and other government science advice bodies?
  • Sage answered questions set by the government. Did omissions and assumptions form in what results were asked?
  • Where, if any, did the government get advice on trade-offs and the broader policy implications of public health measures?
  • Why do science advisors in the UK have so little autonomy from the government?

Research Professional News has contacted the Government Science Office and Cabinet Office for comment. The Department of Health and Social Care declined to comment.

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