One of Britain’s best-known scientists has warned public trust in science could be eroded if it is misused by politicians and blamed for poor decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic.
Brian Cox, the physicist, TV presenter and Royal Society professor for public engagement with science, said the public has to have confidence in scientific advice to accept big challenges facing society, such as climate change.
Boris Johnson and ministers have regularly said they are “following the science” in their COVID-19 strategy, but scientists are increasingly concerned that they will be blamed for government decisions.
Professor Cox said: “The politicisation of scientific advice may deliver some short-term political advantages.
“It’s very tempting to blame the science if decisions are made which subsequently turn out to be suboptimal in some way.
“But this will have serious long-term consequences. It undermines public trust in science and that matters.
“The big existential questions we face as a society require in a democracy, voters, the public, to understand what science is and what uncertainty is, because we don’t know everything.”
Professor Cox was speaking at a news briefing organised for the Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy.
He said the scientific advice being given to ministers should be transparent so the public could see the evidence for themselves.
The government has been strongly criticised for dragging its feet in publishing the names of experts on its Scientific Advisory Committee for Emergencies (SAGE).
It has still only published a small selection of the advice considered by the committee during the pandemic.
“We have to be transparent in making the scientific advice to government available for all to see, with all its nuance and contradictions at the moment, so people see how the process works, and also see how uncertainty leads to progress.
“Science can provide certainty. In physics we are certain that everything is made of atoms and we are certain that the Earth goes round the Sun.
“But certainty arrives, eventually, because of the embrace of doubt.
“We are in a fast-moving situation. New knowledge is being generated in large quantities in unprecedented short time scales.
“So, there is no such thing as THE science in this case. We are too early on the curve of understanding for that to be the case.”
Dr Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said: “Science at the frontiers is always uncertain.
“Scientists will often disagree on issues and the truth will take time to establish.
“So often there is not such a thing as THE science. One has to consider the scientific advice and the government will have to make the best decisions it can now because urgency is an issue.
“But they also have to be prepared to change tack as new evidence comes to light.”
He said the virus was only recognised as a human health threat in December, yet already scientists have sequenced its genetic code, devised a rapid test, and are developing vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
“To do that in 2-3 months is astonishing. A decade ago it would not have been possible.”
:: Listen to Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
Professor Cox said politicians have to be prepared to change the strategy as new evidence on the virus emerges.
“That is not something that has to be apologised for. It’s the lesson of science.
“Changing your mind in the face of new evidence, data and modelling is the sign that you are learning.
“If the advice changes because of new knowledge that is a good thing.”