Science before soundbites
Since Boris Johnson stepped out to his podium for the first Coronavirus press conference, what seems like a lifetime ago, one phrase has come up more times than I can count: “following the science”.
As a member of the Scientists for Labour exec and a social sciences postgrad who gets giddy at the idea of evidence-based policy, you’d think this might have been something that pleased me; a politician following evidence as opposed to whim? Good grief! Yet in reality, all it does is irk me to the point that if I hear one more time I may just scream.
There are two key issues I take with this damned phrase: one (as has become apparent everytime we have failed to lockdown promptly and cases have soared) scientific evidence does not appear to a priority at all when it comes to policy making for this government, and two, it suggests that ‘science’ is a static, singular thing. Whilst I could spend hours ranting about the former (as my longsuffering friends and family can attest), it is the latter I wish to focus on here.
Science does not simply speak with one voice, and nor should it. It is continuously shifting as researchers make new discoveries, test hypotheses and interpret data in new and innovative ways. Sometimes, these voices contradict each other. Governmental responses across the world to the pandemic serve as evidence of this. Despite the fact that multiple nations have claimed to be “following the science”, they have still reached differing policy conclusions. From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Swedish Public Health Agency, for example, opted for a herd immunity approach. They allowed community transmission to occur relatively unchecked, and no mandatory measures were taken to limit crowds on public transport, in shopping malls, or in other crowded places. Coronavirus testing, contact tracing, source identification, and reporting were also limited (Claeson & Hanson, 2020). This policy strategy was developed by scientists, and thus, by definition, based upon evidence. It is, however, in stark contrast to, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations to limit social contact in order to prevent transmission, which are based upon their body of scientific evidence and which have been adopted by various other governments. Both approaches claim to be “following the science”, and that is not strictly untrue, just the science they have chosen to follow is different.
And it is not just the scientific voices that will differ and change which we must note, but also the fact that the way politicians and policy makers choose (consciously or not) to interpret the scientific evidence they are presented with will differ too. Whilst the evidence collated and presented by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been the same for the devolved nations of the United Kingdom, the governments of the devolved nations have put different measures in place at different times. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all decided to enforce national lockdowns as of Boxing Day 2020, whilst England opted to continue with a tiered system until early January, for example. The political ideologies, priorities, contexts, and levels of understanding of the politicians presented with the ‘science’ in front of them will always have an impact on what they do with it.
The phrase has also allowed for the scientific community to become something of a scapegoat. When policy is unpopular, Johnson and co. can turn around, fling their arms up in the air and say ‘we’re just following the science!’. When policy goes wrong, they can do the same, and thus builds a general climate of distrust for science leading to harmful conspiracy theories and disengagement with our community in general. Mind you, after Michael Gove’s earlier comments that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, and presenting university academics as “‘enemies of promise” and “guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need”, this should come of little surprise.
Science isn’t one static thing, but rather an ever-changing mass of conflicting perspectives. And so I leave with one last plea to politicians and policymakers in our party and beyond: yes- consult evidence, yes- work with the scientific leaders in the field so that policy responds to and actually listen to them, but (in the words of Ted Hastings) Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey, move beyond this senseless, overly-simplistic soundbite.