Put Sage scientists on special contracts, MPs told

Informal use of university scientists as independent advisers is unsustainable when health emergencies last for months, warns committee

January 8, 2021

University scientists who work as independent government advisers should be awarded special contracts to recognise their “round the clock” contributions if long-term health emergencies occur in the future, a UK parliamentary committee has heard.

In a report into the government’s use of scientific advice during the Covid-19 pandemic, the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee praises the “timely” formation of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which met for the first time on the issue on 22 January, less a month after China reported the first cluster of coronavirus cases and eight days before the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The report praises the “outstanding service” provided by scientists in relaying health advice to the public.

The unprecedented length of Sage’s operation has, however, raised concerns about how it can “maintain its current level of high activity”, which had implications for academic advisers and their teams.

“We acknowledge senior scientists’ comments of frequent working round the clock, and we pay tribute to their continued service to the public throughout this emergency,” the report says.

“It is not just the participants of Sage, and its subgroups, who are managing this workload – it is shared by the colleagues, junior researchers and technicians who support them, too, as well as government officials, among others.

“The Cabinet Office and the Government Office for Science should commit to update Sage guidance to consider what support might be required for independent advisers in long-term emergency scenarios.”

The report draws attention to comments by the government’s chief scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, who has warned that Sage is “not part of the government operational machinery and certainly cannot run for very long periods”.

The report also notes the comments of Robert MacKay, professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, who told the committee that academic expert advisers had “many other obligations”, including teaching and administration, and as a result colleagues working in epidemiology had been “working round the clock”.

He suggested that mitigating this could involve “a number of fellows to be on research contracts with an agreement to be on call in a relevant crisis”.

While the committee commends the operation of Sage throughout the crisis, it also reports on concerns about its transparency, saying details of its preliminary meetings were not released for two months until the end of May and that it has yet to publish any of the papers that might have been considered at its first two meetings.

Details of the advisers who were participating in Sage and its subgroups were also only released on 4 May, a month after the first national lockdown was introduced, and the committee says that this delay was unnecessary. It recommends full disclosure of who has attended all the Sage meetings within three months of the current Sage being stood down.

Greg Clark, the committee’s chair, said that Sage “began with too little transparency and has improved by publishing its membership, minutes and papers”.

“There is nothing to fear from openness. The more transparent data, analysis and conclusions drawn are, the better it is for policymaking and for public confidence,” he said, adding that the government should also “disclose the assessment it makes of the impact of measures it is considering on livelihoods, education and well-being as it now does with epidemiological analysis”.

The committee also conveys concerns voiced by some about the allegedly limited range of expertise of the initial Sage, with some witnesses claiming that experts from public health science, engineering and coronavirus virology were not sufficiently represented.

However, while noting the “initial dominance of modelling expertise on Sage”, the report says that this was “a fair reflection of the lack of data at the beginning of the pandemic” and reports the comments from health secretary Matt Hancock that Sage expertise was broad enough and that advice from some disciplines – such as engineering – was given “quite separately”.

“We also appreciate that subgroups and other advisory structures exist that may feed into government decision-making, and that the composition of Sage has evolved to incorporate a wider range of disciplines,” the report concludes.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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