‘Science will withstand the coronavirus lockdown backlash’

The UK’s Science Media Centre director Fiona Fox says new visibility of experts will be crucial in combating doubts on official advice during troubled times

April 6, 2020
Source: Getty

As the grim reality of coronavirus lockdown becomes clear, it is easy to see why those advising such extraordinary curtailments of life and liberty might face a backlash from the public.

But scientists, especially those in the public eye, are better positioned than ever to face the criticism that will arise thanks to their unprecedented public engagement, believes Fiona Fox, chief executive of the London-based Science Media Centre, which, in the past few weeks, has had the busiest period in its 19-year history.

Having provided its first expert quote on the novel coronavirus on 18 January, its five-strong team is now dealing with about 40 press enquiries a day and has arranged hundreds of interviews between journalists and scientists, as well as providing quotes, answers to queries and briefings from Covid-19 specialists.

Ms Fox, who has led the charity since its inception in 2001, told Times Higher Education that the early blanket enthusiasm for scientific expertise is now competing with more sceptical coverage – with the UK’s two most prominent scientists, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, facing questions over the UK’s strategy to overcome a pandemic. Neil Ferguson, the virus modeller at Imperial College London whose landmark report on 16 March led to the lockdowns in the US and the UK, has also been attacked for being overly alarmist in his early predictions.

“They have gone from having adoring newspaper profile pieces to being criticised in some quarters for their announcements,” noted Ms Fox. “The big advantage [in maintaining trust in science] that we have now is that scientists are everywhere in the media − this visibility of expertise will help science to come out well at the end of this,” she insisted, contrasting today’s impressive turnout of scientists with the less-visible responses to other recent public health episodes, such as the shunning of the MMR vaccine in the early 2000s.

That said, there is a risk that scientists could become the fall guys for the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Fox worried.

“Even if politicians are listening to scientific advice, they will need to make political choices in this crisis, and we need honesty about that,” she said.

“Winston Churchill said that ‘science should be on tap, not on top’ – politicians should not hide behind science and simply say, ‘We are following the science,’” she added, noting that ministers at the daily Downing Street press briefing on the coronavirus crisis often appeared to throw difficult and highly political questions to the science official next to them.

Instead, it should be made clear that the current situation is based on a “government strategy informed by scientific advice, for which there is a trusted process [of communication and assessment]”, said Ms Fox, referring to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that informs government.

Understanding that different modellers sit on Sage, as do experts from different disciplines, for example, helps to explain why advice does not arrive with 100 per cent consensus, she explained. “You had modellers talking about worst-case scenarios, but [also] behavioural scientists sounding the alarm about doing [lockdown] too quickly – so there is real mix of voices on Sage,” said Ms Fox.

However, the reputation of UK science would emerge from this crisis enhanced, Ms Fox believed. “We’re seeing more than ever that the best and busiest scientists are finding time to speak to the media – they realise that if they do not get good science to the public, it will be harder to defeat this pandemic,” said Ms Fox.

On this issue, the Science Media Centre has been helpful in not just communicating basic health advice via the scientific community, but also in informing the public about complex and sometimes contradictory studies.

As journalists were attempting to understand the different Bayesian approaches to disease spread modelling that had led a University of Oxford team to conclude that herd immunity had almost been achieved, the centre was suggesting experts who could inform the debate – with the consensus agreeing that Imperial’s gloomier assessment was more robust.

When a preprint co-authored by another Imperial professor – electrical engineer Tom Pike – began to make waves after claiming that the UK death toll could be as low as 5,000, the centre was again inundated with enquiries.

“We have been critical of publicising preprint results too widely, saying we should wait for the peer-reviewed paper; but we are seeing them all the time now. Everything is so much in the open now, and it’s not really an option to ignore them,” Ms Fox added of the now-retracted paper.

Having so many experts willing to wade into these public debates will, however, be crucial in the coming months, said Ms Fox, who noted that even academic clinicians were managing to find time to speak to the media after finishing shifts in coronavirus-hit hospitals. “It’s not enough for scientists to come out only when they have a Nature paper – they need to come out and stay out engaging,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

While it is very good that people are once again realising that experts are important... and for academics to be bringing all their best expertise to contribute what they can to the crisis...there is becoming a risk of media overexposure. The POLITICIANS are the ones with the role and responsibility for decision-making. It's their job, they sought it, and they have been elected for that purpose. Academics should not seem to be fronting up on or playing such a public role in such major public policy decisions, to the point where the public may think it's their call, they who are deciding. They are not trained for it, it's not their job and I am beginning to fear for some of them with their academic enthusiasm and even naivety in putting themselves too MUCH in the public domain on issues where they are ultimately (correctly) only advisers and which involve many lives. And yes, to quote the article, "there is a risk that scientists could become the fall guys for the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic" and will their universities and currently enthusiastic Comms offices be there to shelter and support them if and when they come under public fire and are unprepared for it? Institutions have a duty of care towards their employees and I would hope are looking to the welfare of their employees and a little beyond the temporary glow of PR and REF impact case studies.

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