Reflecting on his role as chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Greg Clark MP, discusses the effectiveness of the UK’s scientific advisory body SAGE during the COVID-19 pandemic and considers the importance of transparency in assessing the extent to which scientific research can effectively guide government policy.
Since March, the Committee that I chair, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, has been taking evidence relating to the COVID-19 pandemic as part of our inquiry, UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks. The purpose of the inquiry has been twofold: (opens in a new windory has been twofold:
- to ensure that contemporary evidence is captured on decisions and assessments so that not all evidence relies on recollections and hindsight; and
- so that any lessons learned which are relevant to the ongoing management of the pandemic can be uncovered and applied.
The effectiveness of SAGE
The Committee has taken evidence on a range of topics, including—but not limited to—scientific advice to Government, the test, track and trace strategy, and the development of therapeutics and vaccines. The use of the latest scientific thinking and evidence has been crucial to developments in these areas. Nevertheless, it has become clear that, going forward, the UK must be responsive in its management of the coronavirus and be able and willing to learn from experience and make necessary adjustments as new evidence comes to light. Indeed, this was the thrust of a letter I sent to the Prime Minister on behalf of the Committee.
going forward, the UK must be responsive in its management of the coronavirus and be able and willing to learn from experience and make necessary adjustments as new evidence comes to light
It is clear, from all of our evidence sessions, that SAGE—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—and its subsidiary groups have been consulted in Government decisions throughout the pandemic.
The leading scientists in SAGE, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), Sir Patrick Vallance, and the Chief Medical Officer for England (CMO), Professor Chris Whitty, are substantial figures with independent reputations. SAGE has met frequently throughout the crisis and, according to its website, met over 45 times from late January to early July.
Further, several witnesses who have participated in SAGE meetings described how it has made a serious attempt to distil the range of scientific views into advice to Government. Witnesses told the Committee that the distinction between distilling up-to-date scientific knowledge and directing policy decisions was well understood by SAGE participants.
science should not only inform the development of policy but also adjustments to it
While there is, and must continue to be, a clear distinction between the role of scientists as advisers, and Ministers as decision-makers, it is clear that the Government has been serious in taking scientific advice, and that British scientists on SAGE have sought to give that advice in a way designed to help decision making.
While it is important that the positive contribution that science can make to policymaking is recognised, and the role that good scientific advice plays in providing good governance is acknowledged too, the nature of scientific discovery is slow and methodical at times.
A pragmatic approach, where policy decisions may be needed when the evidence is uncertain, or just emerging, is therefore necessary in some cases. Flexibility is also important: science should not only inform the development of policy but also adjustments to it.
Further, it is prudent to bear in mind the broad definition of ‘science’; indeed, it is in that spirit that the Committee has taken evidence from economists and social scientists.
The necessity of transparency
In addition to the above, I—and the Science and Technology Committee—have had some concerns over the transparency of the scientific advice given and its relationship to Government decisions.
The strength of British science and the prominent role that scientific advice has played during the pandemic can be an important source of public confidence.
However, during the early stages of the outbreak, there was a lack of transparency over the membership of SAGE and the groups feeding into it. Transparency in this regard is important because it demonstrates the breadth and depth of scientific advice being drawn on by Ministers and ultimately guiding Government policy. It also allows for scrutiny of whether SAGE’s membership is appropriate and wider peer review of the evidence it considers.
Following an evidence session with the Science and Technology Committee in March, Sir Patrick Vallance committed to publishing the membership of SAGE. All but two of the names of people who have attended SAGE were published on 4 May. Though welcome, the list conflated those who are part of a ‘core’ group that has guided policy throughout the pandemic with others who have been present for a single meeting.
This visibility of scientific advice is essential for corroborating the Government’s claim that it is either “following” or being “guided by” the science.
The Committee has also been successful in pressing for the timely publication of scientific papers upon which SAGE draws for its advice. The documents underpinning SAGE meetings since January are now provided on the GOV.UK website. As such, much of the evidence informing SAGE is now in the public domain and is appearing now in a timely way. There is a clear public benefit in sharing this up-to-date information.
In addition to the publication of the scientific papers which inform SAGE’s advice to the Government, the minutes pertaining to individual SAGE meetings are now also published. This visibility of scientific advice is essential for corroborating the Government’s claim that it is either “following” or being “guided by” the science.
As Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, I commend this commitment to transparency in the provision of scientific advice to Government.
I was, therefore, interested to read reports in early July that the Government’s new Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) is to take a more prominent role in coordinating the response to COVID-19, and that SAGE will, henceforth, meet less often. One of the witnesses that the Committee has heard from during its inquiry raised important questions over the organisation’s membership and how it was selected, as well as methods for governance, oversight and accountability.
SAGE has been one of the key mechanisms through which scientific advice has been fed into Government throughout its management of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to the efforts of the Science and Technology Committee, and others, SAGE’s membership, the evidence it has considered, as well as the number of times it has met, are now all a matter of public record. Given that transparency of science and the relationship between science and policy are crucial for public trust, it is vital that the JBC follows this example and operates with the same level of transparency going forward.
developing transparency and openness to a plurality of scientific insights were important to ensuring the responsiveness and effectiveness of SAGE
As of 21 July, the Science and Technology Committee has completed 13 evidence sessions as part of its inquiry into the management of the coronavirus pandemic. In the final two sessions we heard from the GCSA, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP. In the Autumn, my Committee will be setting out our full findings and recommendations on what has gone well in this initial phase and what could have been better. We will do this in a constructive spirit to ensure lessons are learned as we enter the winter months. However, what has emerged clearly from these sessions is that developing transparency and openness to a plurality of scientific insights were important to ensuring the responsiveness and effectiveness of SAGE in dealing with a rapidly developing challenge.
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