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‘Independent Sage’ group is an oxymoron

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

The idea that government advisers can separate science and politics is bogus, says Melanie Smallman

This week, former UK government chief scientific advisor David King launched an “independent Sage” group to shadow the government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

The move came after weeks of secrecy about the membership of Sage and speculation over whether the prime minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, had been present at, and influenced, these meetings.

But having worked for two departmental chief scientific advisors in the mid-2000s, I don’t think setting up a rival group claiming greater independence is the answer to questions around Sage’s remit, independence and transparency.

The CSAs I worked for regularly sat on Sage during the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and (twice) bird flu. They—and their staff—were absolutely clear they were not employed as civil servants but as independent scientific advisers.

In case any of the ministers they advised ever forgot, they also had an ‘independent challenge function’ written into their job descriptions. Any hint of political interference was met with a threat to resign.

Of course, this isn’t a straightforward line to draw; one person’s interference can be another’s feedback. I remember a number of heated briefings where ministers were pushing one way and the CSA was pushing another.

But unless there has been a dramatic change in the terms and conditions under which CSAs are employed, then this dance should still be going on in government.

Inextricably mixed

More than that, however, having spent seven years in frontline science advice, I find the persistence of the idea that scientific advice can be separated from politics surprising.

I saw the problem with this idea first-hand, when a group of former colleagues set out to develop two-part submissions, separating scientific advice to ministers into one paper on the policy and another on the science. This, they reasoned, would allow the science to be shared for public scrutiny while keeping sensitive policy advice confidential.

The project was scrapped after several months of testing, because it was impossible to describe the science without revealing the policy advice. The questions being asked and the particular science being used were all shaped by the direction that policy was taking—and vice versa.

We have seen this in action so many times. In 1998, for example, the government appointed an independent scientific group to review the evidence on bovine tuberculosis. The group’s final report, published in 2007, recommended that testing and movement control, not culling badgers, were the best ways to control the disease.

But after this report, the government CSA—one David King—convened an alternative expert panel which thought differently. It recommended culling in high-incidence areas as the best way of reducing infection.

Loaded questions

As Angela Cassidy at the University of Exeter writes in her recent book, this difference of opinion owed nothing to the independence or the scientific purity of either group. It was entirely to do with different ways of valuing evidence—what she calls epistemic differences. The ISG kept a deliberately broad remit, but the review group looked only at the effect of badger culling, without considering practicalities or weighing it up against other options such as vaccination.

Similar epistemic differences are already evident in the independent Sage group, with members complaining about the dominance of modellers in official Sage, and the difficulties of getting public health expertise heard.

At a time of a global pandemic, bringing more—and more diverse—expertise to bear on the issue has to be welcome. But the danger is that, in pursuing some ideal of scientific independence, political issues get disguised as technical matters. This risks handing decisions to scientific experts rather than elected politicians, hiding both decisions and politicians from public scrutiny.

Scientists shouldn’t carry that can. There were a number of science-based options that politicians could have followed in this outbreak. If they chose the wrong ones, then we need to be clear that this was because of broken politics, not broken scientific advice.

Melanie Smallman is a lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, and a fellow of the Alan Turing Institute