Advisors are not our leaders

Sense about Science has sought and achieved significant improvements in the use, standards and transparency of science advice to government. We have always, however, insisted that democratic accountability – for the use or non-use of advice, for the selection and retention of advisers, and for decisions taken on their advice – rests with elected government. While advisors may share advice and information, they do not answer for the decision to employ them or their advice because we the public do not appoint them.

My concern that accountability for the UK government’s response to covid-19 will be shifted to its scientific advisors has grown this weekend at the sight of a policy advisor being fielded to run a press conference on whether they are fit for their job. It suggests a fundamental confusion about leadership with implications for the scientists also giving advice. Governments have sought previously to push responsibility for decisions onto advisors – on GMOs, classification of illicit drugs, management of radioactive waste and vCJD. Contrary to the enthusiasm that some have for such expert arbitration, it only undermines both expertise and the democratic routes to correct poor decisions. Advice is an aid to leadership and decision, not an alternative.

— Tracey Brown, Director, Sense about Science

Published 26 May 2020