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Government’s ‘following the science’ mantra under scrutiny

Brian Cox says the phrase shouldn’t be used as ‘simple defence’ to difficult policy questions

The UK government’s claim that it is “following the science” on coronavirus is not an appropriate defence against difficult questions about its policy decisions, a professor of public engagement with science has said.

The well-worn mantra has been used by several ministers since the outbreak of the virus to reassure the public that it is considering the scientific evidence when it makes decisions.

However, scientists have voiced concerns that the “simplistic” message is masking a more nuanced picture of how science works and how policy decisions are made.

“I have seen instances of the phrase ‘We are following the science’ as a very simple defence to a difficult question,” Brian Cox, the Royal Society professor for public engagement and professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester told journalists at a Science Media Centre briefing on 18 May.

“The picture is full of uncertainties evolving all the time and I worry that if you have a straightforward defence to a difficult question that masks a whole area of debate that will have gone on behind the scenes.”

Instead, he suggested, politicians could say: “‘We listened to the scientific advice carefully, some of which may have been contradictory—indeed, necessarily contradictory because no one knows everything about this virus or how it spreads.

“‘Then we took responsibility and made a decision based on those discussions and indeed other considerations such as industry and economics.’”

While welcoming the government’s focus on science as “refreshing”, Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan agreed that the mantra should not be used as a “prop” by government ministers.

“They should explain the uncertainties and the complexity of their decisions when it’s appropriate,” he said.

While great strides have already been made by scientists since the outbreak, there are still many unknowns, he warned.

“Even in the process of discovery, science at the frontiers is always uncertain and scientists will often disagree on various issues and the definitive truth will often take time to establish,” he said.

“Often there is no such thing as the science so one cannot ‘follow the science’. One has to consider scientific advice and government will need to make the best decisions they can now because urgency is an issue. But they also need to be prepared to change tact as new evidence comes to light.”

As the government faces increasing scrutiny from the public over its response to the pandemic, transparency is key, said Cox.

“We have to be absolutely transparent in making the scientific advice to government available for all to see how the process works, which is vitally important,” he said.

“Also, we need to see how ministers made their decisions and how they may have changed their minds as new knowledge became available. This is the way to enhance public trust.”