Improving relations between policy makers and scientists will help to rebuild public trust In this blog, the British Science Association’s (BSA) President, Professor the Lord Ara Darzi of Denham talks about what he wants to achieve in his year of Presidency. This piece was originally published in the Telegraph. In the midst of the worst pandemic for 100 years, the Government has become more reliant on the scientific community than at any time in living memory. Yet despite the extraordinary strength of science in Britain, relationships between government and scientists have at times been strained. The COVID-19 crisis has confirmed Britain’s status as a science superpower. From developing advanced diagnostics to discovering effective therapies to trialling potential vaccines, there is much of which the country’s scientific community can be proud. The British contribution to the global effort to tame the disease has been enormous. Ministers have a responsibility to listen to scientists with respect, base their policies on evidence, and be explicit about their decision-making. They should be more transparent about the need, in an evolving situation, to change policies as knowledge advances. But scientists, too, have a duty to ensure that they are focused on the most urgent questions and that their arguments are based on the facts. Doom-laden predictions are an easy way to win media coverage. In a pandemic, there is a real risk of confusion and scientists have a special responsibility not to go beyond what the evidence says. I vividly remember when I was a health minister in 2009 being told that a new flu virus, H1N1, could leave 60,000 people dead. It didn’t. It was a sobering reminder that the future is unknowable. We should be using the evidence of history and insights from epidemiological models to offer a properly grounded perspective on how politicians and the public need to prepare for the future. Scientists appointed as official advisers to the government also have a collective responsibility to reach a consensus among themselves and to hold to that position in public. That is one of the duties of such privileged positions. Science is a team enterprise and not the arena for individual heroics. Data and methods must be made promptly and openly available to all for public scrutiny and peer review. Reluctance to share data at the start of the pandemic meant that the epidemiological models were not as robust as they could have been. There can be no justification for keeping evidence secret. With winter approaching and COVID-19 cases rising again, it’s time to reset the relationship between scientists and government. We should start by being clearer about what science can and cannot do. There are increasingly vocal demands for ministers to “follow the science”. They in turn claim that they are doing just that. But it is not as simple as following the science because the difficult decisions in this pandemic are about trade-offs. We know that the best way to protect people from dying from COVID-19 is by living in lockdown until an effective vaccine is widely available. But that would come at an enormous social and economic cost, as well as its cost in terms of other, untreated health conditions. Calibrating restrictions on our freedom to balance a diverse set of goals is extremely challenging. Judgments about such trade-offs are informed by values and beliefs, as well as evidence. Making such judgments, tough as they are, is what politicians have been elected to do. Scientists can set out the menu – with options, impacts, and costs – but it is only politicians who have the democratic legitimacy to choose. Scientists advise, ministers decide. As I take on the role of President of the British Science Association (BSA), I want to see a renewed relationship between government and scientists. Contributing to policies that can save lives is not an optional extra but a moral imperative. Government must treat scientists with respect and scientists in turn must engage respectfully. The public expects nothing less. Only through such a collective effort will we defeat this pandemic. Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham, OM, is a surgeon and President of the British Science Association. He is Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London. If you’d like to watch Prof. Darzi’s full Presidential Address for 2020, an ‘in conversation’ with broadcaster, writer and journalist Samira Ahmed, please click here.