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Concerns over next steps for science advice in Covid-19


Worries over what ‘more prominent role’ for Joint Biosecurity Centre means for Sage and transparency

Researchers have raised concerns over reported plans to give the government’s new Joint Biosecurity Centre a more prominent role in coordinating the response to the pandemic.

Concerns follow BBC reports this week that the JBC will be asked to develop “novel ways to quickly identify and contain potential outbreaks” while the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Sage, starts meeting less frequently.

“It would be very strange and worrying to reduce the role, cohesiveness and frequency of Sage and to transfer responsibilities to a new body, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, that is shrouded in secrecy with no information about its members, how they were selected, and methods for governance, oversight and accountability,” said Susan Michie, director of the UCL Centre for Behavioural Change.

“Transparency of science and the relationship between science and policy is going to be key to public trust, which the government needs to rebuild urgently.”

But Research Professional News understands that Sage will continue to meet regularly, and that it has advised the government to set up the JBC in the first place to act as an operational rather than advisory body.

“Sage will continue to provide a single consensus view of scientific advice at the heart of government decision-making, to inform the national strategic response to the coronavirus epidemic,” a government spokesperson said.

“As we move into the next phase of the coronavirus response, the Joint Biosecurity Centre will complement the work of Sage providing more operational focus, including data analysis and epidemiological expertise with the aim of ensuring that outbreaks of coronavirus are detected and brought under control quickly.”

However, concerns about the centre’s suitability for the role remain.

While accepting that the present structures are “not ideal”, Robert Dingwall, a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said he was “not sure that the JBC is the right way to go”.

“There is relatively little in the public domain about the staffing and working of the JBC,” he said. “I would certainly agree that more information would be desirable as it is put together and that there should be a commitment to transparency in its advice and reports.”

He added that he would prefer to see a more interdisciplinary body created as the top tier, “linking the chief scientists of major government departments with a range of high-level outside expertise in the sciences and social sciences, and supported by a permanent director and secretariat”.

Derek Hill, a professor of medical imaging at University College London, added: “It is important that the JBC learns lessons from the Covid-19 response to date. One issue that was underestimated is the importance of medical equipment, like PPE, ventilators, and testing kits in managing a pandemic.

“It is essential that JBC has access to expertise on these sorts of technologies: the way they are developed and regulated, and their performance. Sage seemed to have limited expertise in these areas.”