‘Don’t sideline expertise’ in coronavirus fight

Australian and NZ rumblings reflect UK qualms about politicians’ selective ears

March 27, 2020
Source: iStock

Australia’s science lobby has echoed UK researchers in calling for wider expert input into the pandemic policy response.

The Australian Academy of Science said it was “imperative” to deploy the full range of scientific knowledge in the fight against Covid-19. “We need everything to combat this,” said chief executive Anna-Maria Arabia.

 “Nobody has visibility of it all, and nobody has one kind of repository where they can go to analyse and contribute their knowledge.”

The academy has called for the key expert advisory body, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, to mimic the UK Government Office for Science in publicly disclosing its advice. “That allows the bigger body of scientists to scrutinise it - not to be critical, but so that they can contribute their scientific expertise,” Ms Arabia said.

She said immunologists, virologists, chemists, geneticists, clinical pathologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians and biostatisticians had contacted the academy asking how they could help. “These are fellows of our academy; often fellows of overseas academies as well. They are amongst the most distinguished scientists in the world.”

Ms Arabia stressed that she was not criticising the principal committee or the chief medical officers who comprised it. But in Australia - as in the UK, where mixed messages about “herd immunity” have tarnished the image of the renowned scientific advisory system - there are concerns over whether a diversity of expert voices, particularly from clinicians, is being heard.

There is also concern over whether scientific expertise is being commandeered to justify decisions grounded in politics - particularly the Australian government’s pressure to keep schools open, despite growing insistence from the public and some state governments that they be closed.

Similar concerns abound in New Zealand, which has moved relatively quickly to put itself in lockdown, despite “porkies” from government and bureaucracy figures opposed to rapid action, according to an expert who asked not to be named.

Former Australian chief scientist Penny Sackett said it was difficult to understand the growing divide between the official policy response and burgeoning opinion - among medical professionals as well as the public - that more precipitate action was needed.

“It is irresponsible,” Professor Sackett said. “It concerns me greatly that there seems to be this mismatch between state policies coming down harder than the federal government is requiring. Maybe the federal government just needs to get out of the way.”

She said trust in the world’s politicians, and the intelligence informing their actions, was not high. “In a case like this, where it’s a matter of life and death, people deserve to see exactly what that advice is. If there is disagreement among experts about a certain point, we should see that too.”

Her successor as chief scientist, Ian Chubb, said advice given to politicians did not always “turn out the way you thought it would”. But that was not necessarily “malicious”, he stressed.

In some cases, politicians had little time to digest complex information before fronting press conferences about it. In others, they had to balance scientific advice with other considerations. “It’s got to fit into a complex fabric,” Professor Chubb said. “The edges may well be trimmed for reasons that I, as the adviser, might not know, but they - as the people who’ve got to look at the whole tapestry - do know.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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