U.K. government should not keep scientific advice secret, former chief adviser says

David King, a former chief scientific adviser in the United Kingdom, has set up a “shadow” scientific advisory group to the government.
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Chemist David King is no stranger to politics or epidemics. From 2000 to 2007, King was chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, U.K. prime ministers from the Labour Party. During that time, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to the culling of millions of sheep and cattle. Meanwhile, in humans, the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus spread from China to two dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, before the epidemic was contained.

In the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, King has criticized the way scientific advice has been handled by the Conservative U.K. government. He has charged, for instance, that the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) should be made public—along with its advice. King has assembled a dozen scientists into an unofficial panel that he calls an independent SAGE. Last week, it conducted its first meeting, which was livestreamed on YouTube.

Science interviewed King while he was preparing a report from the group’s first meeting. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You’ve started an independent SAGE group. What’s the problem with the SAGE that’s already advising the government?

A: It is not operating in an open and transparent way. I’m not saying that all science advisory group meetings should be open to the public. But I do believe it’s very important that the chairman of the meeting, in this case, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, should be out explaining to the public what the groups are saying, what the committees are discussing, and what the conclusions are in terms of the advice given to government. When the government says that it is following the advice of the scientific community, but that scientific advice is not known to the public, we, the public, cannot judge whether or not they are. There is a question as to whether ministers have been shielding themselves by using this issue that they are simply following science advice.

Q: Are there any specific examples that you’re thinking of?

A: Behind all of this is a dissatisfaction with the way the government has responded to this crisis.