Science advice and government: Covid modelling

26 April 2022


Covid modelling

Reported by Victor Lovic, CSaP Policy Intern

How have scientists contributed to UK government decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the structures and mechanisms that have drawn science into the policy making process?

The fifth season of CSaP’s Science & Policy Podcast is focussing on how science advice, data and evidence are used by decision-makers in government. In the seventh episode of the series, the Centre’s Executive Director and Podcast Host - Dr Rob Doubleday – was joined by Julia Gog, Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Cambridge, and Sir John Aston, Harding Professor of Statistics in Public Life. Both were heavily involved in the SAGE process during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Gog through her work with SPI-M, the specialist advisory group on modelling pandemics, and Professor Aston as the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) in the Home Office.

Listen to the episode here:

The conversation started with Professor Gog describing how she became involved in the scientific modelling and advice process during the COVID-19 outbreak. She explained that she was already a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), a standing group that sits within the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), with expertise on modelling influenza pandemics. In early 2020, SPI-M moved into an “operational mode” and became a sub-committee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Professor Gog provided an insight into the SAGE process during the first stages of COVID-19. She said SPI-M held twice-weekly three-hour-long meetings, and they were presented with complex policy-relevant questions that required complex modelling, with limited data and limited time. Whilst the pandemic was still unfolding, SPI-M was already expanding its team by bringing in new academics, including some from linked universities.

Professor Aston then offered insight on what it was like in his role within the scientific advisory process during the pandemic. He described his position, as the CSA in the Home Office, as bringing science in its broadest sense, including all disciplines, into the decision-making process. He had been in the role for two years, and explained that a crucial difference - before and during the pandemic - was that pre-COVID the role of science within government was well-defined. For example, the Home Office deals with crime in the UK and as such they have well-structured processes for drawing on forensic science and expertise. However, when the UK government first imposed lockdown restrictions for England, suddenly scientific advice and evidence needed to be considered for almost every decision that followed. Professor Aston stressed that he is not an epidemiologist, he said his role was “not to do the science” but rather to “translate the science that has been done”, such that it can be used by policy and decision-makers. He explained that SAGE was a very important part of his work during the pandemic, and the information and modelling coming from SPI-M was “invaluable”.

“The numbers and data coming out of SPI-M were being used on an hourly basis.” – Professor Sir John Aston

Reflecting on the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Aston noted that there was a lot of uncertainty in scientific evidence and advice early on, and it was difficult to communicate that fact to the public. He explained there is now a better understanding that science doesn’t provide answers to everything. Also, most areas of policy have now had science involved in their decision-making process. That has helped build an understanding of the type of questions science can and cannot answer. It has also helped policymakers better frame questions in a way that is suitable for science to answer.

Scientific advice within government became much more visible and open to public scrutiny during 2020 and 2021, illustrated by the televised COVID briefings delivered by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, and the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. Professor Aston said that all one could do was to concentrate on providing independent and accurate evidence to decision-makers. He said it was important to reflect on the outcomes of policy decisions and evaluate what worked and what did not during the COVID-19 outbreak. For him, the best way to deal with what he described as the “politicisation” of the process was to be transparent and open about the science behind any decision.

“Transparency really helps keep the system going from a scientific point of view.” – Professor Sir John Aston

Professor Gog concluded the podcast discussion by acknowledging and reflecting on the contributions to SPI-M by hundreds of academics, both nationally and internationally. She noted that there is an element of “kudos” when contributing to SPI-M, and it is well regarded within the academic community to have done work which reached their meetings. Relatedly, during Spring 2020, she explained there was quite a lot of leeway given to academics to dedicate their time and efforts to pandemic-related matters. According to Professor Gog, this became harder once restrictions started to lift, as there was more pressure for academics to return to their “day jobs”. Professor Gog and Professor Aston both emphasised that it is important to give academics the time to contribute to emergency responses, as well as the credit for having done so. This is especially important for early-career academics, like postdoctoral researchers, who rely on academic publications and citations for career progression. Science advice to government is not a typical output which is acknowledged for career development opportunities. Both Professor Aston and Professor Gog made clear that we must also recognise the work and contributions of early career researchers and early career scientists for their involvement in the data analysis part of the pandemic – which was a crucial part of the UK’s response.

Professor Sir John Aston

Statistical Laboratory, University of Cambridge

Professor Julia Gog

Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), University of Cambridge

Victor Lovic

Imperial College London