By Des McNulty, Deputy Director of Policy Scotland and Assistant Vice-Principal, Economic Development and Civic Engagement, at the University of Glasgow
In an excellent post on the University of Edinburgh COVID Perspectives blog, Professor Christina Boswell points out that one of the striking aspects of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK has been the apparent rehabilitation of the expert, previously derided during the Brexit debate by Michael Gove amongst others. At their daily briefings UK and Scottish Ministers are joined by scientific and medical advisors including Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director for the Scottish Government and Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. Experts have been so adept at dealing with media questions and so authoritative in giving information to the public that they have, with increasing frequency, been sent out to bat for the government, leading to a blurring of roles. From the point of view of both governments however the key role of experts is to demonstrate that policies are being guided by ‘the scientific advice’.
In her book The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge, Boswell distinguishes three possible functions of expertise in politics: to inform policy; to substantiate particular claims or decisions; and to signal the competence of actors to take well-founded decisions. She argues that all three seem to be at play in the COVID-19 crisis: ” … it’s clear that the UK Government is keen to draw on expertise to fix the problem. Unlike in many other areas of policy where the effects of policy are diffuse and long-term, the government’s legitimacy in handling the pandemic is very closely dependent on actions it takes now. Whether it sustains the lockdown, rolls out testing, or expands ICU capacity will have a very tangible effect on health outcomes. In this situation, it can’t get away with compelling rhetoric and symbolic gestures – or at least not for long. Which is, of course, why populist administrations may find themselves foundering in this situation.”
In Scotland, details of the measures being taken in response to COVID-19 by the Scottish Government and the UK government and the outcomes (in numbers of cases and deaths) are extensively reported in the traditional media and discussed on social media. So expert opinions as well as the choices made by politicians are exposed to scrutiny by the media and the public, whose normal working and lives have been disrupted. Any variation of approach between Scotland and England is highlighted and probed – both in terms of the political choices made and the evidence base on which decisions rest.
In other policy contexts, politicians could afford to be more cavalier about evidence. Inaccurate or unfounded claims were unlikely to be challenged by scientists and medics in white coats. The grim consequences of any misjudgements were not so immediate. But in the COVID-19 crisis, especially given that death rates are higher than in most other European countries and governments on both sides of the border have been criticised as initially slow to respond, it has become vital for politicians to demonstrate that their actions now are fully consistent with scientific advice in order to avoid blame. As Boswell points out, it’s never that clear what the ‘best’ evidence is. In the early stages of the crisis there were different views within the scientific community about the trajectory of the pandemic and how to handle its threat before the Imperial College scenarios concentrated minds and settled the debate. In circumstances where public health considerations are balanced against a wide range of social and economic factors, there may not have been a clear and unambiguous scientific view. Given that both SAGE and COBR meet in private and we don’t even know the full membership of the former, we will have to wait for a post-pandemic enquiry to probe the scientific arguments put forward within SAGE and the political considerations within COBR at UK level (and in the equivalent meetings in Scotland).
Both politicians and scientists in Scotland and the UK are now locked into a discourse in which scientific advice, and within that epidemiological priorities, are seen to be of paramount importance. This is a very uncomfortable place for politicians and officials who, as Boswell says, “are keenly aware of the uncertainty of science – which is partly why they tend to prefer trial-and-error, incremental approaches to testing new policies, rather than introducing new and untested interventions based on abstract modelling.” But the risks involved in not being seen to do everything possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus has trumped other political considerations until now.
Boswell argues that there is a strong symbolic dimension to the use of expertise. “The government wants to make it clear to the public that its decisions are based on scientific evidence. And different protagonists are keen to use scientific claims as ammunition to support their positions – the substantiating function of expert knowledge. To complicate matters, the government isn’t using expertise simply to validate claims, it also appears to be using it as an insurance policy. If things go wrong – and the curve gets too steep – it will be the scientific advice that is to blame.”
Boswell’s concerns are that “if science is held responsible for poor political decisions, its authority becomes eroded. Science does not, and cannot, offer definitive answers to new and complex social problems – just propositions and hypotheses that are more or less robust. So pinning policy on such uncertain claims is disingenuous, and will only serve to undermine trust in science.”
The associated danger for politicians is that any attempt to blame the scientists risks rebounding on them: “playing the blame game will be seen as a sign of weakness and poor judgement…. Science is a vital resource for modelling scenarios and developing medical and technical responses; but for many aspects of decision-making it is contested and uncertain. If we set our scientific advisors up to find policy solutions, we risk generating disillusionment with science, and, in the long term, further erosion of its authority.”
Reliance on experts is never without risks – for the scientific as well as political communities – even if there are no disagreements. But what if there are differences within either group or between them, giving rise to conflicting conclusions? And what if there are differences between scientific advisors and politicians in Scotland and the rest of the UK? Currently they are in lockstep – but tensions between health and economic considerations will inevitably increase the longer the emergency phase goes on.
The narratives the two governments want to create may diverge. If differences are limited to the phasing of the removal of restrictions consistent with reductions in the number of cases and the R number in both jurisdictions, then both sides can claim that science was the determining factor and that any variation was attributable to differences in context or circumstances.
The willingness of the public to co-operate with restrictions on movement and personal contact has been underpinned by the legitimacy provided by scientific advice. However, when it comes to deciding what forms of social distancing should be observed in different social settings, the scientific evidence is likely to be less clear or robust. North and south of the border, it is likely that scientific advice will continue to play an important symbolic (as well as real) role.
But political calculations – assessing the risks involved in removing restrictions (which might lead to a spike in cases and more pressure on the NHS) versus the economic and financial consequences of not doing so – and managing the narrative so that governments retain control over the agenda rather than surrendering the initiative to critics will be, even if they are not already, key considerations for decision makers. In that context, how the Scottish and UK governments respectively use scientific experts to inform and explain the choice they make will be of considerable interest, not just to students of the workings of devolution within the UK. Scientists should be cautious about getting caught in any crossfire.
As the scrutiny process kicks in, it is likely that choices and the evidence they were based on (or the lack of it) is subject to questioning, especially in the light of what other countries did and are doing. It is not just politicians who need to be prepared for that scrutiny process, experts will be called to account too for how they have responded. The more the implications of the disruption and the lockdown unfold, the more likely it is that the expertise of a broader range of disciplines, including economists, sociologists and other specialists, will be called upon to provide guidance to government. Research-intensive universities will want to highlight the contribution of science during the emergency and the role that universities can play in supporting the recovery process. Understanding the relationship between experts and policymaking and how it has been evolving through the crisis will be of particular importance.
To cite this article : McNulty, Des. Experts and politics in Scotland and the UK, Policy Scotland, 6 May 2020, https://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/experts-and-politics-in-scotland-and-the-uk
Written content is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.