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Donald Trump flanked by scientists Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci.
Stefani Reynolds/EPA

Coronavirus has put scientists in the frame alongside politicians – and poses questions about leadership

If there’s one thing we’ve got used to in the pandemic, it’s seeing our political leaders on TV standing next to scientists. So striking is the impact of scientists on policy that it has become hard to see such figures as anything other than leaders working alongside, rather than simply for, politicians.

The Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is a noteworthy example. His popularity in Sweden has reached levels normally beyond even the most popular political leaders. T-shirts bearing slogans such as “All power to Tegnell, our liberator” have become trendy, and more than one fan has had Tegnell’s face tattooed on their body.

Tegnell is given more airtime and was attributed greater leadership qualities than the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven. Commentators have even referred to him as landsfader (father of the nation), which, with its overtones of Roman Augustan patriarchy, could hardly be more political.

Swedish man gets a tattoo of Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

The US provides another interesting example of a scientist taking on a leadership role. Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease specialist and an important White House adviser, became a de facto leader for large parts of the population during the crisis.

Fauci’s fame and popularity, especially in Democratic circles, is as striking as that of Tegnell in Sweden. And his stock as a national leader has risen to such a degree that he can credibly push back against some of Trump’s pronouncements.

It might not surprise us that scientists are involved in decision-making in a health crisis. Indeed, it seems obvious that politicians should call on scientific experts for help when facing a virus that poses a major threat to the population. Without scientific guidance, politicians and the public would struggle even more than they do now to navigate the pandemic. Yet from a historical perspective there is something rather unusual about today’s close alliance between scientists and politicians. In western culture, we have long been trained to understand the role of the scientist as standing in stark contrast to that of the politician.

The leader and the bureaucrat

In an influential 1886 essay, Woodrow Wilson, who was later to become the 28th US president, made a distinction between administration and politics. He argued that non-elected government officials should stay away from politics, which he understood as the realm of values-based decision making.

A few decades later, the German sociologist Max Weber made an even more influential distinction between the charismatic leader and the bureaucrat. The charismatic leader follows their inner conviction in a passionate struggle for power, whereas the bureaucrat obediently follows their political superiors while keeping their own politics at bay.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance look on as British prime minister Boris Johnson speaks at a coronavirus news conference inside number 10 Downing Street, London
Familiar tableau: the leader and his bureaucrats. Leon Neal/EPA

Within such dichotomies, scientists – to the extent that they contribute to political decision-making – clearly fall into the same camp as bureaucrats. Their task is to report the facts impartially to politicians when they are instructed to do so, allowing the political leaders to then decide how these facts fit their values and their vision for society.

Such distinctions have become deeply ingrained in our thinking and can take extreme forms. They do not only give rise to the image of the paper-pushing, risk-averse bureaucrat, but they also shape the contrasting idea of the leader as someone who stands above the rules by which ordinary people must abide.

True leaders, we are led to believe, must have a vision that transcends our world. Instead of engaging with the world as it is – which is the bureaucrat’s domain – the goal of the political leader is to create a new order. Instead of representing the world as it is – the task of the scientist – their goal is to lead us to another better world, even if that means ignoring or falsely representing the one in which we live.

False dichotomy

The strict conceptual dichotomy between the leader and the bureaucrat/scientist is not mirrored in the messy reality of the day-to-day running of nations.

Inevitably, scientists bring their values into their research, in deciding what deserves to be studied in the first place (as Weber acknowledged) or how to communicate their results to a broader public. And, unlike their ideal counterparts, most real-life politicians and business leaders don’t consider themselves to reside in a sphere of pure “vision” that is above and beyond the realm of rules and facts.

Still, the leader-bureaucrat distinction continues to exert a great influence over us. And it can lead to problematic behaviour on both sides of the separation.

A traumatic lesson of the Holocaust is that the fantasy of the perfectly disinterested individual – concerned with nothing but obeying the rules set by their political superiors – can result in an evasion of moral responsibility, with disastrous consequences.

On the political side, the current occupant of the White House is a perfect contemporary example of a leader who feels untrammelled by contemporary norms. A post-truth leader like US president Donald Trump is not an anomaly but rather an extreme manifestation of how we have come to think about leadership and what we have come to expect from our leaders.

The idea that politics and science reside in distinct realms is, in short, itself the cause of significant problems. In the end, we don’t want bureaucrats or scientists who evade responsibility in the name of objectivity. Nor do we want leaders who consider themselves above the law. Different professional groups perform different roles in society, but those roles cannot and should not be thought in terms of rule-following versus rule-breaking behaviour, or in terms of facts (scientists) versus values (politicians).

Against the background of this cultural image of leadership, the roles taken on by scientists such as Tegnell and Fauci can be seen as a very positive development.

Scientists in leadership roles clearly play an important part in dealing with the pandemic. But just as importantly, the sight of scientists taking up these positions also does something to our notion of leadership. In particular, it challenges the dichotomy between leaders and bureaucrats that underpins popular leadership notions, such as visionary leadership, transformational leadership and authentic leadership.

The obvious good sense in bringing the most knowledgeable people into the decision-making process reminds us that good leadership is informed and not disconnected from what is happening around us. It reminds us that it takes an interest in the present and is not merely a mobilisation of the masses by means of a projected future.

Is science-based leadership possible?

But a word of caution is also appropriate. In the media coverage of and commentary on the pandemic, one often encounters the celebration of “science-based leadership”, a notion that is reminiscent of the 19th-century fantasy of a society designed around the discoveries of science alone – as espoused by positivist philosophers.

In this media narrative, countries that have done well in battling the virus, such as Germany and New Zealand, are depicted as “science-based”, whereas countries that have messed up, such as the US and Brazil, are “anti-science”.

“Science”, in much of the media, quickly becomes reduced to “the facts”, and the facts quickly become numbers. A country is deemed to be following a “science-based” policy when it closely monitors the latest numbers of COVID cases, deaths, people in intensive care, and so on, and adjusts its policy accordingly.

Precautionary principle

In reality, things are not quite so straightforward. The results of scientific research are rarely, if ever, sufficiently clear-cut to allow them to be turned into specific policy measures without a further layer of political consideration. And there is no established unity among different sciences that would allow contrasting findings in, say, epidemiology and psychology to be “scientifically” weighed against each other.

Also, instead of following, as natural and logical steps, from the results of research, much of the key policymaking in supposedly science-based responses to the pandemic relied on the precautionary principle: the taking of determined action on a just-in-case basis.

The precautionary principle explained.

New Zealand, for example, decided to “go hard and go early”, before any significant body of scientific evidence was available to predict the outcomes of different approaches. Indeed, one way of conceiving of the precautionary principle more broadly is as a substitute for science when decisions need to be made and there is a limited amount of scientific evidence to provide a basis on which to make them.

While science is indispensable for a good understanding of what is happening today and how we may respond to it, it cannot come close to providing answers to all questions we are facing. The answers to bigger questions, such as those involving the setting of priorities (for example, balancing social wellbeing against short-term health outcomes), necessarily depend on value judgements. Weber gravely overshot the mark in his insistence that there are, and should be, two completely distinct sets of people, with one set acting in obedience to the other. But he was right in recognising that scientific input can only ever be limited in leadership decisions.

The popularity of the idea of science-based leadership is understandable as a counter-narrative to the way post-truth leaders have responded to the pandemic. If it merely points to the importance of scientific experts in mitigating the pandemic, there is also little to object to. But the kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis (as well as in normal times, if such a thing exists) requires more than the inputting of numbers and swift decision making derived from calculating results. Ultimately, we must also reflect on how we want to live, what outcomes we value, and how to achieve these ends.

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