Photo: Three donkeys from Jean Mottershead Flickr photostream

The UK government always claimed their response to COVID-19 was “led by science”. As both government and the science community descend into a quagmire of public spats, what can we learn about the dangers of coupling politics with science?

The adage “lions led by donkeys” came about during World War One to refer to the idea that many British generals were blundering, bungling idiots leading their courageous troops to certain death. Similar sentiments were expressed about the government’s stumbling its way through the COVID-19 crisis, many blaming poor leadership for the UK’s exceedingly high death toll. From the start of the crisis, pundits were pointing out Johnson’s reckless handshaking and lack of distancing shortly before testing positive for coronavirus and allegedly nearly dying in intensive care. Yet the government insisted on plying the “led by science” narrative in daily party political broadcasts (construed as “daily briefings”). Johnson and co would stand at their lecterns with their scientific lieutenants pillared either side of them, bombarding the public with the message that science underpinned policy. If some believed in this performance at the time, they may not any longer as the fickle media vultures are now happily unmasking the true ideological spirit driving Johnson, evident in the alleged “bodies piled high” comment.  This was no blunder.

How was Johnson able to convince most of the population he was led by science? In a previous blog I discussed the problems with the politicisation of science and the fashion for chief scientific officers: “When knowledge is politicised, truth can become those statements made by the scientist selected by the polity as the superior scientist.” I argued that politicising science and scientists is in opposition to the principles of science, given that science stands or falls on the recognition and understanding of the impact of bias. But it is important to consider that the scientific community was becoming increasingly weaponised by politicians of all varieties prior to the pandemic, enabling the public to look to politicians to “interpret” the science for them.

For example, in early 2020, UK academics were reeling from the previous five years of Brexit talk during which there was a prevailing sense that the nature of the debate had led to a widespread rejection of expertise in Britain. Remember Michael Gove famously stating “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” in the context of BREXIT.

Perhaps this is not surprising given the tendency during the campaign period for political scientists, economists and other social scientists to make predictions and extol certainties as though social science was equipped to make predictions akin to medical risk-based models. Many UK academics from a range of disciplines appeared to support these predictions as though there were never any debate within academia about what it is possible to know, and how it is possible to know it, that has raged across and between disciplines for all time. No wonder then that the public began to think of experts as weathermen.

The scientific community has also demeaned itself in its recent exodus from the ivory tower into the hall of fame. I blogged recently with colleagues about how the ‘impact agenda’ in universities requires academics to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research on public life. This way of assessing the value of scientific output can disrupt the normal processes of science in that academics who produce findings that fit with the prevailing political ideology gain greater kudos because it appears their research has influenced policy.

In pursuit of ‘impact’, many in the scientific community have taken to Twitter to communicate directly to the public. Never before have we had to know so much about the private lives of scientists – their favourite open water swimming venue, how they take their coffee, the quality of their spousal relations, where their children got into university, how their experimental sourdough turned out. The more followers this generates, the better the scientific outputs… apparently. Scientists who are less performative on social media do less valuable science… apparently.  Twitter may well be a useful platform to inform a certain section public about science (dependent on relatively narrow Twitter user social demographics) but it also introduces far more scope for bias to enter the public’s understanding of science. Twitter also provides plenty of material for the ‘ad hominem’ attack which scientists then reel from when they become the subject of it.

In other words, what counts as good science has been regressing since well before COVID-19. While encouraged by the neoliberal machinations of academia to seek fame on Twitter, the building blocks of science have been chipped away without remark and its ornaments have bolstered ideological projects. In a recent paper with Ewen Speed, we showed how, largely unnoticed, NICE, the UK’s scientific authority for pronouncing on best medical practice, all but abandoned scientific principles during the COVID-19 emergency. We show how this was only possible because of the degraded scientific principles set down in the original fabric of the institution, which has gone largely unchecked since its inception in 1998. NICE, like Chief Scientific Officers and scientific advisory committees, have a form of power to influence allocation of health resources emanating from their politically appointed status as scientific authority; and this is in essence unscientific.

It seems we are neither led by donkeys nor by science but by an ideologically driven hybrid. It is incumbent on scientists to pull away, rebuild our own foundations and to be far more wary of loaning ourselves out to ideological projects unwittingly or otherwise.