Scientific advisers are not free to speak their minds and are deferring to ministers, Sir David King has claimed as he launches an independent alternative to the official body advising government through the coronavirus pandemic.
Calling for greater transparency on the official group, Sir David, who was the government’s chief scientific adviser between 2000 and 2007, said he was worried that ministers were also “setting the scientists up to be the fall guys” in the aftermath.
Later today, Sir David will convene a 12-strong committee to shadow the government’s scientific advisory body for emergencies (Sage), which will focus on seven key points, including how testing and tracing can work, and the the future of social distancing.
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“We don’t know what advice is coming from the scientists on SAGE into the government,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “There is no transparency in the process.”
“When ministers and the prime minister say that they are simply following the science advice all the time, we the public don’t have any check on that.”
“We see the scientists at the daily news briefings, but usually with a minister present as well. That is very, very different from being free to say what your advice is. In others words, there is a complete unity between what the scientists are saying and what the politicians are saying.
Pressed on whether the scientists were not free to speak and deferring to ministers, he replied: “I believe that’s the case the case, yes.”
“I think there’s a very big difference between the situation today and the situation as it was in 2010-11, that is quite simply the permission to speak in the public domain has been changed.
“I think the main point I’m making is that an independent science advisory group really needs to be dominated by people whose income is not determined by the fact they are working for the government.”
In a separate interview on Sky News, he added: “At the moment when ministers say they are following the science advice, I’m just a little worried because I don’t know what the specifics of the advice are. I’m just a little worried the ministers are setting the scientists up to be the fall guys.”
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His remarks came as Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of SAGE and director of research charity Wellcome Trust, called for greater transparency on the secretive body, urging ministers to publish the body’s membership alongside minutes of meetings held.
Sir Farrar added that around 250 people feed into the committee, whose role is to “provide advice”, reiterating that are made are the preserve of policy makers and politicians.
“I think transparency is right,” he told the BBC. “I’m all in favour that the name of the people on that group are made available to everybody, and indeed I would push very clearly for that advice to made public from the start.”
He continued: “Personally, I would make the minutes transparently available after a certain time. Transparency helps people understand the uncertainty, the difficulty, the fact that the advice does have to change as the facts change.”