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Sage in the spotlight

Public trust in scientific advice is vital—and it relies on transparency

“Simply inappropriate and wrong”— former chief scientific adviser David King’s reaction to allegations that Dominic Cummings may have been influencing meetings of the supposedly independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies sums up the outrage felt by many when the Guardian broke the news of his attendance at
Sage meetings.

As King swiftly articulated, the anger is because Cummings’ role is inherently political. As a special adviser, rather than a civil servant, his day-job is to directly advise the prime minister. Sage’s discussions should be distilled for politicians by the chief scientific adviser, but as King says, “If a Spad is sitting on Sage it’s a fair assumption that they are at least in part playing this role.” Why else would they be there?

The current CSA and Sage chair, Patrick Vallance, later said it was normal for officials to listen to meetings and ask questions. But Cummings’ presence raises the possibility that the CSA’s account of discussions could be called into question or worse, directly undermined. And this is even before considering whether Cummings has played an active role—something Number 10 and Vallance have denied.

The difference between the UK’s and other countries’ approaches to Covid-19 have already led to mounting calls for Sage’s membership and attendance— as well as evidence underpinning its advice—to be made public. Keeping the public on side is essential during lockdown; for that openness is essential.

The reasons given for not doing so centred largely on Sage being ‘free of influence’. If attendees are identified, they might be lobbied—but any conflict of interest or pressure on those individuals is also more likely to be revealed if the membership is known. That can’t happen if pressure is being applied—even indirectly—in secrecy behind the closed doors of the meeting itself. 

A more powerful argument is over safety. Since the Cummings row erupted, experts in Germany and the UK have revealed death threats have been made to people advising politicians on Covid-19. 

This is beyond appalling. If people cannot offer advice without putting themselves at risk, then some may, understandably, not advise at all—potentially leaving the public more exposed to harm. But such issues have been successfully dealt with in animal research and politics, and surely could be again.

The anti-expert culture presided over by members of this government before the pandemic has sadly made this kind of treatment more likely. The front-and-centering of Vallance and the chief medical adviser during the pandemic seemed to be engendering greater respect, but the current transparency row risks plunging us backwards. 

The death of David Kelly in 2003 shows the tragic consequences that can follow pressure placed on people advising on sensitive situations, and there may be some, understandably, unwilling to sit on Sage if identities were known. This would be regrettable, but keeping Sage’s meetings secret will further undermine trust in its advice. That risks the expertise of those willing to serve on the group being wasted, too.

Sunlight may not be the best disinfectant for Covid-19, but it remains essential for trust in research. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight