- Writing from Quarantine, 23rd March 2020
- Writing from Quarantine, 25th March 2020
- Writing from Quarantine, 30th March 2020: Long Live Society
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- Writing From Quarantine, 8th April 2020
- Writing from Quarantine, 15th April 2020
- Writing from Quarantine: Politics and Science
- Writing from Quarantine: The University of Home
- Writing from Quarantine: Staying the Course
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Politics and Science. Science and politics. Political science, or perhaps, more accurately, scientific politics?
It’s something that’s been in the news lately. The Guardian reported that Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner have been attending the meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advises the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Dominic Cummings, for those of you who don’t know, is Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser. Ben Warner, a data scientist, worked with him on the Vote Leave campaign back in 2016 and is now reportedly the main ‘data adviser’ to Number 10. Cue left-wing outrage.
Not without justification. SAGE is a supposedly neutral body, intended to give advice to the government without interference from partisan figures. And that word, partisan, is important. I’ve seen plenty of takes floating around saying that this is somehow ‘politicising‘ science, but what advice the group gives is innately political. In the sense that it affects everything about our lives, and is based upon the judgement of the group’s members on how best to proceed, anyway. Choosing between recommending different courses of action relies upon that person’s judgement on what the government can do, and how people are likely to respond. These questions that reach right into the heart of politics, touching on both public policy and human nature. None of this makes it the same as anyone’s opinion, as of course, the members of the group (per the list obtained by the press) are leading experts in their field. But I digress.
Introducing political advisers into the SAGE is problematic, for the quite obvious reason that it affords them the opportunity to interfere, if not with the essence, but with the formulation of the advice intended for the government. To change it, for instance, to a less stark warning, that ministers might later use as a way of explaining their failures in interviews, the Commons or, perhaps, a public inquiry. That would subvert the process of accountability, which we cannot allow.
I have heard it said that well, of course, chief political advisers are sitting in on Sage. They provide a link between the decision-makers and the experts, which is important for the government to work effectively. In which case I have a question. Have the government heard of email? Or a phone call? Or letters? A text? Hell, before the lockdown they could have asked the group to report in person, and now they can do it online. There are plenty of ways in which the government can be told what the advisory group recommends, and they don’t need to have advisors in the room to do it.
Please don’t mistake this as an accusation, or a demand for the heads of the guilty. I am of the mind that it is possible no harm has been done, and in any event, we lack proof. However, it is important to keep in mind that in this case, the appearance of impropriety may be almost as bad as actually perpetrating it.