Science, Policy & Pandemics: Building Trust Between Politicians and Scientific Advisers

9 June 2020


The role of scientific advisers to government is under the spotlight as never before. It is easy enough to talk of “speaking truth to power” – but as governments’ efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic demonstrate – the science is often evolving and uncertain. At a time when politicians are relying on scientists not only to inform decisions but also as trusted communicators – what is the nature of the authority and power of science advisers?

As part of our series on Science, Policy and Pandemics, we explored the working relationships between politicians and their scientific advisors.

Listen to the discussion here:

Produced in partnership with Cambridge Infectious Diseases and the Cambridge Immunology Network, CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's series on science, policy and pandemics aims to answer questions about our understanding of the current pandemic, including the epidemiology, on what basis governments are making current decisions, how much confidence we can have in the knowledge models are producing, and how to manage the uncertainties involved in the present crisis.

In this episode, Dr Rob Doubleday was joined by Professor Frank Kelly, Professor of the Mathematics of Systems at the University of Cambridge, The Rt Hon. Lord Alistair Darling, Baron of Roulanish, who served continuously in the Labour government’s cabinet from 1997 to 2010, and Salma Shah, former Special Adviser to Sajid Javid.

Throughout the discussion, Lord Darling emphasized that "the first thing you always need to remember when you're a minister is that you're also a member of parliament. You've been elected, and you're there to represent your constituents." He noted that cabinet ministers do have to make judgement call about trade-offs between risks, while stressing that politicians are more likely to foster public trust and public buy-in if they are capable of explaining why they've taken the decision they have, and what that decision entails. He suggested that it is important to be straightforward and accountable, while sharing the evidence that has informed your decision-making wherever possible. Moreover, Lord Darling noted that while during the current covid-19 crisis, "ministers appear flanked by experts" in many countries, he believes that it is important for politicians to not hide behind their scientific advisors or use them as shields, and that - in order to maintain trust and strong working relationships - one should never ask a scientific advisor to do something they don't believe in.

Meanwhile, Professor Frank Kelly - who served as Chief Scientific Advisor to Lord Darling at the Ministry of Transport between 2003 and 2006 - reflected on the parallels between the ongoing debate over whether the UK's contact tracing app should be centralised or decentralised, and an investigation into public attitudes towards privacy undertaken by the Department of Transport in 2003. Here, he noted that the public at the time was overwhelmingly uncomfortable with the government having access to personal data. However, his experience also suggests that people are more comfortable sharing their data if they understand how sharing information will benefit them. He further emphasised that openness with the public is vital for conveying public health messages which have a degree of built-in uncertainty, such as the ongoing debate between 1m or 2m social distancing.

CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's special series on Science, Policy and Pandemics is available across all major podcasting platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Google Play, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Podbean, ListenNotes, Acast, Player.FM, Podcast Addict, and Castbox.

Cover Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash