Science ‘risks coronavirus backlash’ as it is drawn into politics

Policy experts express fears that public and politicians will hold scientists responsible for the economic and social damage of lockdown

May 14, 2020
A lone protester holds a sign calling for an end to the lockdown and claiming chloroquine works as she stands in front of the White House in Washington on Saturday, April 25, 2020.
Source: Getty
Polarising positions: ‘for some, scientists have become the face of policy decisions with profound implications for people’s ­freedom’

Trust in science could sour in the pandemic crisis, especially if politicians try to pin blame for policy mistakes and the downsides of lockdowns on their scientific advisers, international science policy experts have warned.

Although initial surveys in the UK and Germany suggest that trust in science has jumped, scientists advising governments on their response to the coronavirus have also been subject to death threats, newspaper exposés and online hate across a number of countries, leading some to fear that they could be held responsible for the economic and social damage wrought by national lockdowns that seek to halt the disease’s spread.

In the US, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a familiar presence at presidential press conferences, has been the subject of online conspiracy theories alleging that he is attempting to undermine Donald Trump.

Although many key decisions on lockdown measures in the US are made at state level, where scientific advisers are less visible, there was still a risk that politicians would use scientific advisers to “abdicate responsibility” for their actions, said Shobita Parthasarathy, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor who focuses on science and technology.

And while the US public still supported social distancing measures “by a large margin” − an implicit vote of trust in science – there were now hints in the US that belief in the necessity of the measure was polarising along partisan lines, like it had for climate change, Professor Parthasarathy said.

Meanwhile, in the UK on 5 May, Neil Ferguson, a disease modeller at Imperial College London whose projections of hundreds of thousands of deaths were key to persuading the government to introduce lockdown measures in the UK, resigned from his advisory position after The Daily Telegraph revealed that he had allowed his lover to visit him at his home in late March and early April, in apparent breach of social distancing rules.

“The way that he was attacked by people on the political right reveals something rather interesting and potentially dangerous,” said Jack Stilgoe, a senior lecturer in science and technology studies at UCL. “For some people in society, scientists have become the face of a set of policy decisions that have profound implications for people’s freedom.”

In the UK, the government has often repeated the line that it has been “guided by the science” in its coronavirus response, and ministers have been conspicuously flanked at press conferences by senior scientific advisers.

“It’s convenient for politicians to hide behind scientists,” said Dr Stilgoe. During such a politically “febrile” time, “scientists will get blamed” and “the populists will take advantage of this”, he predicted.

In Germany, too, scientists have been drawn into a political blame game. Christian Drosten, a high-profile virologist at the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin and an adviser to the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, revealed last month in an interview with The Guardian that he had received death threats from people who see him as “the evil guy who is crippling the economy”.

Even in Finland, which has suffered only 255 deaths from Covid-19, tabloid journalists have written broadsides against government scientists, accusing them of wielding huge power without democratic accountability, according to Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, a science communication expert and researcher at the University of Helsinki.

A coalition of business chiefs, economists and “populist” politicians has criticised the country’s centre-left government and its scientific advisers for being too ready to relax restrictions, said Dr Laaksonen.

Researchers who investigate hot-button issues such as immigration and racism in Finland have long faced abuse online, but “suddenly it’s now for health-related issues, too”, she said.

In France, sociologists have begun to worry that society has placed too much trust in science during the pandemic – which could lead to bitter disappointment later.

Dominique Wolton, one of the country’s most garlanded thinkers on science, technology and society, has been warning that science is seen as “all-powerful” while politicians “seem nearly helpless, delegating all responsibility to ‘those in the know’”.

“We should not hesitate to remind people on a regular basis that good science requires time,” said Michel Dubois, a sociologist based at Sorbonne University, who has warned that scientists are operating under huge pressure during the pandemic, placing strain on the normal peer-review process.

Another risk to trust in science, according to those who spoke to Times Higher Education, is the narrative, stoked by Mr Trump, that the coronavirus originated not in a wet market but rather in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A poll at the end of March found that one in five Britons believed that the virus came from a lab in China.

“If that becomes the dominant story, that will definitely affect universities,” said Professor Parthasarathy. It would feed into “Frankensteinian” notions of science, added Dr Stilgoe.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Science risks being fall guy as lockdowns chafe public

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Reader's comments (4)

FIX PROBLEMS, NOT BLAME. What we must do, as academics, is resist involvement in the politicisation of the pandemic. We should remain aloof from the self-interest displayed by politicians of all parties and concentrate on the science, presenting the evidence - publicly, not just in briefings to the government - as accurately and clearly as we can. Make it clear that science is about solving problems and answering questions.
Here is a one- in-another-century test for science ; ... a temerity grounded in facts and logical deductions / forecasts Or a panic grounded in dilletantism . Of course nature is not infrequently a slippery beast able to make a mockery of the most grounded science. Cynics will see the mockery ( if it happens ) and make a song and dance of it . Populists of all shades will then mount the stage, conducting sticks bashing air and science. Basil jide fadipe.
To quote historian John M Barry "When you mix politics and science, you get politics"
I have been thinking of this issue for a while. Reminds me of the Italian seismologists who were prosecuted for "failing to give adequate warning." Quite reasonable that the membership of SAGE should be kept secret so that they don't get journalist or political pressure, then ... David Kelly also comes to mind. Coronavirus hasn't been that [L'Aquila earthquake and Iraq War] much of a global cock-up [yet] but it's claimed many more Italians and Britons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_L%27Aquila_earthquake#Prosecutions

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