Will the coronavirus crisis renew public trust in science?

As a global pandemic is declared, public health experts in universities have never been more visible. But do they think this episode will reshape perceptions of academia after the years of Trump and Brexit?

March 16, 2020
Source: Getty
Testing times: politicians and the public are welcoming scientific and other academic expertise during the coronavirus crisis

From “will my pet catch coronavirus?” to “will the Tour de France be cancelled?”, Devi Sridhar has been asked almost every conceivable question by journalists on the global health pandemic.

Finding time for these daily interviews with ITV, BBC, Sky News and others alongside her day job as professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh has been “complex” but worthwhile, she told Times Higher Education. “Communication is half the battle in keeping people safe so I’m happy to answer questions,” said Professor Sridhar, whose public health advice – including her interview on pet safety with BBC Newsround – has been lauded by Chelsea Clinton, London mayoral candidate Rory Stewart and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation among others.

As an expert in disease control, Professor Sridhar has been one of the most in-demand media commentators as the coronavirus has risen from a localised scare in Wuhan to a full-blown global contagion that has crashed financial markets, grounded planes and closed schools and universities.

But there are many others from academia who have stepped up to offer advice and, where appropriate, reassurance to a general public hungry for expertise, rather than political game-playing, particularly in the US, where many have questioned if November’s presidential election is shaping opinions on the pandemic. “I have no agenda – I speak only on the basis of evidence and I think people are keen for this type of independent practical advice,” reflected Professor Sridhar on the current appetite for expert opinion.

Those stepping into the media limelight, however, have faced a backlash, mostly from those loyal to Donald Trump who, until recently, dismissed coronavirus as a Democratic “hoax”, explained Professor Sridhar. “I’ve had some pushback from people accusing me of causing panic – I’ve had some really horrible comments made about me, which is something women seem to get,” she said.

“As academics we are quite hidden, but a situation like this forces us to become more exposed and there have been some negative repercussions as random people have got in contact with me,” she continued, adding: “Everyone has an opinion on this, so I’ve had to become tougher in how I handle these negative comments.”

Overall, however, Professor Sridhar sensed a marked shift in how the politicians and the public listen to expert opinion. “There has been a welcoming of expertise not just from scientists or vaccine experts but from mathematical modellers and statisticians who are involved in tackling this situation,” she said. “Boris Johnson has changed how he has operated, often giving way to Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, or Sir Patrick Vallance, his scientific adviser,” she observed.

It is not just the UK prime minister either. On 12 March, his chancellor Rishi Sunak prefaced his remarks on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with the claim that “at every step of this process we are guided by advice from our scientists and medical officers”. Later in the programme, Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, welcomed the fact that ministers are now “turning to experts, having been quite rude about them, which is a very good sign”.

Many in academia will welcome this shift: the rise of Mr Trump in the US and the UK’s vote for Brexit left universities struggling against the political tide and academics facing questions about their ability to win round voters with their arguments – Michael Gove’s refrain that “people in this country have had enough of experts” still looms large. Meanwhile, governments swept to power on the populist wave have become increasingly sceptical about the returns of public investment in higher education, and more and more critical of universities on issues such as freedom of expression.

But Heidi Larson, professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, believed it was too soon to say if experts would be entirely vindicated by the coronavirus episode.

“I think the UK should have introduced a protective strategy far earlier than it did,” said Professor Larson. “I would have been more worried, rather than encouraging people to carry on as usual and attend their football matches.”

That said, the swift and coordinated response to the coronavirus crisis has presented an “opportunity to champion science”, said Professor Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, whose research has focused on public trust in science.

“Within a month we have four different candidates for vaccines under way, which is tremendously quick,” said Professor Larson. “I can’t imagine any of them will be ready for public use within this wave of coronavirus, but developing one would be huge for strengthening confidence in science,” she added, particularly if it was ready in time for a second wave of the virus.

Dog in mask

“If you look at the H1N1 pandemic [in 2009-10], it was the second wave that was the bigger killer, which is why, if we can jump on this [vaccine], people will take it,” said Professor Larson.

Other parts of academia beyond epidemiology and vaccine research, however, are also rising to the challenge. At the University of Southampton, data scientists have been working with Chinese authorities to track the movement of citizens using mobile phone data that is then traced against coronavirus cases to assess the effectiveness of travel restrictions.

“We have done it as quickly and as rigorously as we can in a very short timescale,” explained Andrew Tatem, professor of spatial demography and epidemiology at Southampton. In the longer term, he wondered if this kind of interdisciplinary work with science will help the public to understand how artificial intelligence can be used to tackle huge real-world problems.

“I think it will improve the reputation of data science – there is always the risk if you have only data scientists in the room you come up with something that might not have an application to the real world, but this tends not to be the case with the interdisciplinary teams that we have to understand the dynamics of this pathogen,” he said.

Gabriel Leung, dean of Hong Kong University’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, also felt that science had risen to the challenge. “The extent and severity of this pandemic is unprecedented, but people have not been caught off-guard,” said Professor Leung, an expert in public health.

Even the shutting of Hong Kong universities and schools since January, deemed draconian by some, has “been borne out [as correct] by subsequent events”, he observed.

With trust in Hong Kong’s public officials lower than ever after last year’s mass protests, people have increasingly looked to academics for advice, it seems. Professor Leung, however, did not see himself as a proxy for the work that public officials would normally do. “I don’t see myself doing someone else’s job – I am just doing my job as a public health professor who can provide an independent voice who talks about science and the evidence,” he explained.

Now a veteran of four public health emergencies – the Sars outbreak in China in 2002-03, bird flu in 2007, swine flu in 2009 and now Covid-19 – Professor Leung was hoping that he would not be called into action again. “Normally you get one pandemic in a lifetime – four is more than enough,” he reflected.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


The academics leading the global response to coronavirus 

Zhong Nanshan 
Zhong Nanshan, former president of the Chinese Medical Association, is the leading academic advising the Chinese government on Covid-19 and, de facto, one of the main public figures related to the epidemic response. The 84-year-old was already known in China as the “Sars hero” for his discovery of that coronavirus in 2002-03 and for his honesty about the epidemic at that time. While some have cast doubt recently on Professor Zhong’s claim that Covid-19 may have originated outside China, he has also been outspoken about the government’s early response. “If we could in December or early January have taken strict control measures, the number of patients would have been very greatly reduced,” he said. He also said he was “proud” of Li Wenliang, an early whistleblower who died from the virus.  

Chris Whitty
Boris Johnson is not known for sharing the limelight, but the prime minister has been more than happy to have the UK’s chief medical officer by his side in recent press conferences. It has proved a smart move, with Professor Whitty’s calm and considered updates doing much to indicate that the government has a grip on the growing public health crisis. However, the 53-year-old scientist’s clear and authoritative statements have led some to ask whether he should be running the show altogether. “Cancel the PM. Just show Chris Whitty. We need level heads, not blonde idiots,” tweeted one social media user. His assured performances are no surprise to many in academia, since he worked at the University of Malawi and then the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before joining the Civil Service in 2009. Sir Simon Wessely, chair of psychological medicine at King’s College London, described Professor Whitty as “calm, collected, courteous, confident and clever” and “made for the post” as chief medical officer.

Soumya Swaminathan
With the World Health Organisation declaring a global health pandemic, attention has increasingly turned to its efforts to find a vaccine. Much of this work will be led by its chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, an Indian paediatrician and clinical scientist known for her work on tuberculosis. Appointed in March 2019, Professor Swaminathan will lead the meetings that will produce a global research agenda for the new coronavirus, setting priorities and frameworks that can guide which projects are undertaken first. “Understanding the disease, its reservoirs, transmission and clinical severity and then developing effective counter-measures is critical for the control of the outbreak, to reduce deaths and minimise the economic impact,” said Professor Swaminathan, whose teams have already been taking stock of China’s many clinical trials. “Getting the clinical trials straight is a priority, since if we get information on what is working and not working, we can benefit patients now,” she told Nature.

Li Lanjuan  
The Zhejiang University medical professor was the leading epidemiologist on a panel that advised the Chinese government to quarantine Wuhan, a controversial decision that caused much personal and economic pain to the city’s 11 million residents, but also greatly slowed the spread of Covid-19 across China and the world. “It would’ve been very dangerous to let the contagion continue developing in other provinces,” she said to state television. In early February, she led a team of experts into Wuhan, where other medical personnel had become sickened or even died. Professor Li, 73, the director of the State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, has deep experience in combating previous epidemics like Sars in 2002-03 and the H7N9 avian flu.

Gabriel Leung 
The University of Hong Kong’s medical dean was the first expert to call Covid-19 a “pandemic” publicly. He has never been one to sugar-coat scientific facts, even alarming ones, despite his faculty’s close ties to government and world bodies like the World Health Organisation, and his frankness and aggressive push on Covid-19 research has made him one of the most cited figures during the crisis. A Covid-19 detection test HKU developed in January has been received by more than 40 countries. Its medical experts have published or co-published Covid-19 work in The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other top journals. HKU has also been very active in disseminating Covid-19 information to the public with user-friendly videos, social media posts and online classes.  

Joyce Lau and Jack Grove

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Reader's comments (4)

It's very noticeable here and globally, that every lead body is making the major decisions that Governments in other countries have taken but our Government has steadfastly refused to make. Sports bodies are cancelling events for example, others are cancelling major events such as gigs, Glastonbury et al. I seriously question the advice being given to Johnson by his two leading "experts" as it seems to fly in the face of 100s of other top, leading scientists. I notice today, Matt Hancock is denying the "herd immunity" comments made by said leading experts...…………………...
The uk “ herd immunity “ approach would seem a ‘plot’ against a second wave of the virus ( were there to be one ) more than the current one ... the only way it makes sense Basil Jide fadipe.
Having read and understood what the scientists advising the govt are seeking to achieve, and Boris having the balls to tell the truth, some family members may die, the press, especially the anti-Brexit left wing, are trying like mad to force the UK to follow the Italian example, which has already proven not to work. Some areas of Italy are comparatively C-19 virus free, the areas already overwhelmed show just how difficult it will be if the hump isn't flattened and the second wave is likely to hit the currently C-19 free areas very hard. Trust in the Science, and Scientists, here will be strained for as long as the 'free' press continues to attack them and the Gov't, death is inevitable from the moment of conception, something modern life has hidden for most and dealing with that reality for many is the bigger problem. I can also report my University has lied to it's staff and students, a visitor who on returning home was diagnosed with C-19 reported it to his host, the Uni claims to have contacted all the staff and students in the affected building over the weekend, they didn't 'contact' they sent a normal non-priority e-mail, the only people who seemed to have actually been made aware directly were security and the cleaners who have NOT been to the building since, now a number of staff and students have reported in by phone/e-mail this morning they are off sick/self isolating, no cleaning let alone deep cleaning, yet the building is open for business as usual, Scientists I can trust, University management however...
Chaos is a ladder: There are some academics who have taken the Covid19 pandemic as an opportunity to self promote, which I think is appalling. I think they should take some time to deeply and honestly reflect on how they engage with the media and why. Academia is a game of profiling your own expertise but Professors who take every opportunity to retweet their own praise, whilst blocking any constructive descent and making every development about themselves shouldn't be surprised when people see through this. This may not be about gender or political affiliation at all. Some of the best minds are not on twitter but are rather working away at this problem behind the scenes and you have to look at the research to actually find them. They're also researchers and clinicians on the front lines in hospitals putting their own health and that of their families at risk for the good of public health. This message doesn't come from a place of resentment but rather a plea to stick to the facts and your own area of expertise, be humble to those who truly sacrifice with little acknowledgemen or reward, and keep your eye on the science and protecting public health and not your own academic fame. This type of arrogance and narcissism is counter-productive to restoring the public trust in science. Respectfully.

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