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Lessons unlearned

 Image: the GFCC [CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr

Covid inquiry should seek to link science and politics, not cast blame, says Geoff Mulgan

The UK’s Covid inquiry has provided a rare view of both the inner workings of government and the relationships between science and politics. It has not been a pretty sight, revealing expletives, panic and mutual denunciation where there should have been calm and control.

The one thing that many held onto during the pandemic was the idea, repeated endlessly by prime minister Boris Johnson, that government was following the science. It seemed like a good contrast with US president Donald Trump’s contempt for science, or others like the president of Tanzania, who recommended lemon and ginger as a cure.

Unfortunately, Johnson proved an unreliable advocate for science-driven government. Several witnesses have noted his struggles to handle scientific concepts and data, and according to his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, he called Covid “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

Others have been even blunter. The top civil servant at the beginning of the pandemic, Mark Sedwill, viewed Johnson’s administration as “brutal and useless”. Johnson’s top political adviser, Dominic Cummings, whose own flouting of lockdown rules did so much harm to public confidence, was described as “aggressive, foul-mouthed and misogynistic”.

But even with a more thoughtful and sober politician in charge, the claim to be following the science would have been problematic. In his evidence to the inquiry, the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, admitted that the phrase had become “a millstone around our necks”, but he didn’t say much about why this was the case.

Diagnosis and prescription

In my new book, When Science Meets Power, I offer both a diagnosis of why so many of our arrangements for linking science to government are misfiring and prescriptions for the future.

The first problem is that ever more political decisions require a grasp of science. This year, governments have had to work out how to regulate all kinds of artificial intelligence, how to prepare for future pandemics, and how to shape climate change policies that avoid disaster without prompting a public backlash.

Yet politicians are one of the very few groups exercising power who receive almost no professional training. No wonder so many flounder. At a minimum, they need better preparation for the roles they now have.

Second, the pandemic revealed both science’s power and its limits. Scientific analysis was vital for mapping and understanding the pandemic, and for designing vaccines.

But science can’t make decisions any more than it can weigh up how to balance the interests of children and the old, mental health and physical health, safety and the economy, as was necessary again and again during the pandemic.

Indeed, on most of the big calls it simply wasn’t possible to follow the science in a meaningful way. Scientists have powerful methods for analysis, but not for judgement or deciding what matters. They often appeared out of their depth when having to weigh up or synthesise multiple types of knowledge or consideration.

Third, it follows that we will increasingly need structures and people able to handle science and politics simultaneously. This will be as relevant to governments trying to get a grip on the risks of artificial intelligence as it is for those struggling with roadmaps to net zero.

Holding science to account

In terms of people, scientists will sometimes need to be appointed as ministers, and held to account for their decisions. It will be increasingly implausible for them to hide behind the claim that they only advise, when de facto they are implicated in executive decisions.

The structures needed include committees, agencies and bodies within parliaments to provide continuous evaluation and assessment of the difficult judgements needed around science and technology.

Should large language models be licensed or regulated? Are new rules needed for biosafety in high-risk experiments? How should the world navigate the potential advent of quantum computers that could undermine online security?

There are no easy answers to these and dozens of similar questions. But what should not be in doubt is that any answers will have to be political as well as scientific.

So far, there is no sign that these lessons are being heeded. The Covid inquiry has defaulted to a blame game: entertaining for the media but not useful for learning or preparing for the next pandemic.

But as science becomes ever more important to daily life and politics, before long we will need to overhaul our systems and structures to better reflect that reality.

Geoff Mulgan is professor of collective intelligence, social innovation and public policy at University College London and the author of When Science Meets Power (Polity).

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight