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Chief medical officer, Chris Whitty. Leon Neal/EPA

Coronavirus: government advisory groups should include a wider range of experts

Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, embattled governments around the world have relied heavily on expert advice and opinion. Recently, however, the UK government has been criticised for relying on an advisory group with a narrow range of expertise.

This lack of disciplinary diversity is a cause of serious concern given that pandemics are complex problems with biological, environmental, social and political causes and consequences. COVID-19 is not simply a medical emergency, and our efforts to combat it will fall short if we don’t use a wide array of specialist knowledge and experience.

The advisory body responsible for guiding the UK government through the coronavirus crisis is known as SAGE - the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. The Guardian recently revealed that the group comprises 21 scientists and two political advisers to Downing Street. When we look at the range of expertise among these scientists, we see that SAGE is heavily skewed towards the medical sciences. This may come as no surprise, given COVID-19’s impact on human health and the NHS. But when we look at the broader picture, an advisory group skewed overwhelmingly towards medicine is a cause for worry.

Since the outbreak, medical science has helped to save countless lives and given us a much-needed perspective on COVID-19’s effect on the human body. But pandemics are not simply medical phenomena. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, believed to have emerged in a wet market in Wuhan, China, where the virus was able to leap from bats to humans via an intermediary species. It spread rapidly through a densely populated city, reaching almost every part of the world within months.

In other words, to understand this disease we need to understand factors including animal health and welfare, food and farming cultures, social behaviour in urban environments, and international transport. Multiple forms of expertise are required if we hope to address and understand every aspect of such a complex problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon. Alex Plaveski/EPA

We can already see some possible connections between a lack of expertise in critical areas and the shortcomings of the British response to the outbreak. It has been suggested, for example, that the high death rates in care homes and the government’s failure to achieve daily testing goals can be linked to the lack of expertise in the key areas of social sciences, engineering and logistics.

Importantly, the main critics of this lack of diversity are scientists who themselves have previously acted as scientific advisers, including the former director of maternal and child health at the World Health Organization, Anthony Costello, and the former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, Anne Glover.

As Costello notes: “A balanced scientific advisory group would at the minimum include experts working at the frontline of the pandemic, such as those in public health, primary care and intensive care.”

When we look at the root of this criticism, we can attribute it to the fact that lack of diversity in expertise among the members of SAGE is not reflective of scientific research at large. An important characteristic of scientific practice is its multiplicity of disciplines, each using different methods, models and theories to pursue different lines of inquiry. Even more significantly, different disciplines constantly interact to address complex questions that cannot be answered by each discipline in isolation.

It’s understandable, given the nature of the challenge we face, that medical sciences are taking centre stage – but a cause for alarm that other disciplines have been sidelined. We must, of course, urgently deal with the medical aspect of this pandemic in order to save lives, but moving forward, it is crucial to take a broader range of expertise into account so we can avoid a resurgence of COVID-19 and combat the emergence of new pandemics. Coronavirus is not just a medical disaster, it’s an environmental, social and economic crisis too.

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