How (not) to do science in a crisis

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The writer is a science analyst.

Who needs it? Success When will the UK Covid question be on YouTube? The real-life rollercoaster drama, which began public hearings in June, is lifting the curtain on how decisions were made in the UK during the pandemic.

In recent weeks, there is a storyline between Farsical and Maccabi, which has been drawn up by the testimony of civil servants and scientific advisers. At the center of the decision-making web sits a determined and “bamboo” prime minister struggling with numbers, diaries kept by his chief science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

All around, says a female civil servant, are ego-driven missiologists with an “absence of humanity”. A secretary of health who has a vested interest in determining which citizens live or die among these collaborators; And the chancellor, nicknamed Dr. Death, is dealing with infection prevention measures. By twisting that Success Applauds creator Jesse Armstrong, Dr. Mott, or Rishi Sunak, is now Prime Minister, and Dame Angela McLean, the scientist who coined the nickname, is his chief science adviser.

Although the hearings are old, the real value of this public inquiry is to improve decision-making in future crises. As our age is defined by the challenges of science and technology, such as the climate emergency and AI, one legacy is important: this must be the last generation of politicians who can’t get their heads around science. The continuous continuity in the government of two inextricable traditions of science and humanism – in which a former prime minister can write a biography of Shakespeare in his spare time, but does not understand the percentages and opportunities that life depends on him – should be considered a sign. It is a sign of shame, not honor.

Vallance believes advisers need to have a clear mandate and do a better job of communicating science and policy options to ministers. But this discussion requires knowledge that is lacking in both politicians and the civil service. In the year In 2018, one in ten civil service fast-track workers had a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) background; The target is now 50 percent. We need public servants who can identify, analyze and interpret important information – and provide a mandate if it is lacking.

They need to be able to confidently assess policies aimed at delivering government strategy, once ministers have clearly set out their strategic objectives and feel comfortable explaining mathematical concepts such as exponential growth. If the number of infections is doubling or tripling every week, this means that a delayed decision usually has a worse outcome. Ministers should not slavishly “follow the science” but try to understand the evidence and own their decisions.

Graphs that equate one variable to another can be another sticking point in the recommendation chain. Last week, McLean showed a graph she designed early in the outbreak, plotting the number of infections over time, to predict when hospitals might be overwhelmed. The graph, she reflected grimly, could not move servants. In fact, data visualization allows policies to define themselves. Epidemiologist John Snow’s “spot map” of 1850s cholera cases in Soho reveals the communal water pump at the center of the mystery – and the obvious way to end the epidemic.

Managing the modern crisis is not as simple as turning off the water pump. A trade-off may be required. Given the tension between saving the nation’s health and protecting the economy, the fight against Covid has gone beyond what the UK Health Safety Agency allows. But where was the economic advice – and what is the evidence that health and wealth go hand in hand?

Empirical observation – the scientific method of “looking around” suggests that countries that control infection are relatively economically well off. Could it be said that the UK’s statutory sick pay policy has allowed much of the economy to stay open by encouraging sick people to stay at home? For future crises, we need a framework that looks at these options from a broader perspective, underpinned by health, economic and security considerations.

As the survey shows, good policy on the hoof is hard to come by, but science is meant to help. It is a way of thinking open to curiosity, not a box full of immutable truths for the motivated. It creates questions, resolves assumptions, and allows knowledge to develop. He gave us epidemic vaccines and medicines.

In times of crisis, science is an ally, not an enemy.

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