24 April 2020

Evidence and individual agency in the coronavirus pandemic

Chair: Mr James Arroyo

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers the impact on our personal lives, our communities and changes in wider society. We start with a focus on individuals, communities, and, in this session, on the impact of the debates on scientific evidence on individual agency.  

The focus of May is on communities and the economy as an aggregation of communities connected by systems. In time this will progress to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, from ones we can determine such as the economic, to systems we depend upon – the climate. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions the pandemic raises for democratic societies. What the pandemic is surfacing as to what people care about and why, and how can democracies respond? 

Science plays a pivotal role in addressing crises like the one we now face. But the central role of scientific advice in such a crisis brings scientists, often ill prepared, into the arena of politics and values, where their advice can be used or abused and their opinions wielded by politicians as shields to deflect public anger. This discussion focussed on the interaction between science and society and on how trust in science and scientists, built on a greater understanding of science, is essential for navigating a path through the crisis and subsequent recovery.  

Although we have good models for creating policy in normal times, or even times of limited emergencies, coronavirus has brought us into unknown territory as an extended and complex emergency, bringing into play questions of scrutiny and transparency, even as the emergency continues to unfold. 

A potential advantage in facing the crisis is the eagerness of the entire scientific and technological community to contribute ideas, solutions and brain power with all hands to the pump. But taking advantage of this through an open approach brings its own challenges.  Many of the solutions put forward with confidence and enthusiasm by other scientists and companies are unverified, unsubstantiated or simply under-cooked. The expertise necessary for sifting and validation of proposals is itself a limited resource and we have to weigh whether we want leaders in the field to spend their time vetting others’ work, or to be spearheading the race to a solution through their own research.   

It was agreed that outsiders could provide a valuable fresh perspective by asking the simple questions that experts in a field might overlook through familiarity. But this was most useful in the discovery, brainstorming phase of tackling the problem. When it came to implementation of solutions, then as with surgery, most of us would want a single well qualified authoritative and decisive voice to take charge of the procedure. Although in popular culture we might enjoy seeing the outsider point out the critical flaw in the expert’s thinking, is this providing an unrealistic expectation to society?  

Scientists in government were faced with two types of problems, typified as classes by the examples of hurricanes and abortion policy. For hurricanes then the values component is low and the role of expertise generally straightforward. Everyone wants to protect life and property. Abortion is at the opposite end of the spectrum with values at the heart of the issue.  For such value-driven issues, then, scientists were generally better asking questions than mandating solutions.  The coronavirus crisis is difficult because it has elements of both ends of this spectrum – everyone wants to limit fatalities but the questions of at what cost and who should pay the price, are interpreted through people’s values. 

Science is rarely exact, with a multitude of viewpoints, but how can we distil multiple threads when some of these could be in conflict? Scientific conclusions, even consensus ones, could turn out to be incorrect, and an unforgiving public can hold up such missteps to support their lack of trust in experts. There is a lack of public understanding as to what expertise actually amounts to – most of the literature on scientific expertise dates back to the Second World War and the tradition of “the boffin” and could do with a refresh. Openness is important, but without trust, an implicit contract, this can lead to a chaotic dissemination of half facts and fake news.  

Trust is built over time, which is in short supply during a fast-moving crisis like this. In more sedate times a second or third opinion would be valued and the merits debated but decisions have to be taken and this is not always possible. We need transparency, both in the scientific knowledge, but also in the political decision-making.  

Given an environment where sections of the public are openly hostile and science can be used for political aims, how can scientists remain neutral? The prospect of a potential backlash must weigh on a scientist’s thinking. There are many opportunities for scientists, even the best qualified, to get it wrong. Real world problems are generally “wicked problems” requiring adaptive leadership, in other words complex rather than just complicated. This means that no one is really an expert in dealing with such a crisis and everyone is learning as events develop.    

Assumptions in a model could prove to be unfounded. Perhaps an event, which was predicted to be likely (but not certain), did not come to pass; or perhaps an outcome was averted due to the following of sage scientific advice, making the action taken look like an overreaction.  Managing the judgement of risks is not easy. How far should politicians and scientists offer reassurance and clarity to the public and how far should they expose the reality of uncertainty and a lack of clarity? 

The life of a scientist in this situation is clearly not an easy one. At times like these they can no longer stay within the comfort of their ivory towers, enjoying the natural pace of scientific discourse with the relative safety net of the peer review system. The weakness of ethical training for scientists was noted and contrasted with the better offer for engineers. More preparation was also needed on how to present complex arguments in a convincing but also transparent way to both policy makers and the public.  

Although many of the above problems need to be tackled to improve our efficacy in dealing with future pandemics, one could argue that we should have been more prepared for the current crisis. This is the latest in a line of zoonotic diseases and the threat of a global pandemic has long been high on the national risk register. Following previous outbreaks much research and response-planning has been carried out, but the adoption of such recommendations has been varied, limited by political will and budgets. Why did these concerns resonate in some countries but not others?  

We cannot hope to fix these problems in the midst of our current crisis. We need space to reflect. But lessons need to be learnt going forwards on how to use expertise and to make the public feel engaged in the process and the trade-offs that have to be made in funding resilience, as opposed to addressing more current and acute problems.   

Expertise deserves respect but not reverence as a priesthood. We need to protect science from politicisation but at the same time it cannot be separated from values debates. 

Participants: James Arroyo, Director, The Ditchley Foundation; Megan Engel, Schmidt Science Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard; Anthony Finkelstein, Chief Scientific Adviser, National Security, HM Government; Anil Gomes, Associate Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford; Lina Nilsson, Senior Director of Data Science Product, Recursion Pharmaceuticals; Amy Orben, College Research Fellow, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge; Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean; Martin Smith, Data Scientist, The Ditchley Foundation.

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.