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Good science vs spin in the age of pandemics

Necessity is the mother of invention. The breakthroughs in record time for Covid-19 vaccines are the latest testimony to what can be achieved. The accepted timeline for vaccine development is around 10 years. Pfizer/BioNtech completed the task in around 10 months, with Moderna and Oxford University/AstraZeneca not far behind. This is a truly remarkable success for the biotechnology industry and, by extension, the wider scientific community.

It’s possible to make the case that the global biotechs and academics working to discover and develop these vaccines have had a good pandemic. But what of science in broader terms and data science in particular? The picture is more mixed.

Driven by human beings, science is a consistent attempt to expand the horizon of knowledge through detailed application of method – what the scientific community refers to as “good science.” There are few eureka lightbulb moments. It is iterative and rigorous, as much as genius. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for luck in the discovery process – science is littered with fortunate discoveries, from Fleming’s penicillin to 3M’s Post-Its. Indeed, AstraZeneca may have enjoyed their own dose of fortune in their Covid-19 vaccine development. Two separate trials reported 62% and 90% efficacy, but the higher result occurred due to an error resulting in participants being given half of the planned dose.

That science is rarely exact or particularly rapid has not stopped politicians around the world from implying otherwise. ‘Following the science’ has become the popular refrain and, in deeply challenging times, one might argue that politicians could do little else.

But while an attractive position to take, and one which partially absolves accountability for difficult and unpopular decisions, it is also unrealistic and disingenuous. Despite the oft-stated certainty of many scientists, in scientific research, for every proven fact or law, there are countless failed hypotheses.

In suggesting that science is infallible, politicians have established a dangerous expectation in the minds of the public. Dedicating two-thirds of the platform at Downing Street’s press conferences to the country’s top scientific advisers may have been a sincere attempt to provide reassurance but, in the absence explanation and understanding of the fallibility of science, it merely served to place science in a position that it should never occupy.

Scientists should be able to back up their recommendations. But expecting them, and therefore the science and data analysis, to move at the pace mandated by a 24-hour news cycle is unrealistic.

Models are only as reliable as the data on which they are created. The accuracy and timeliness of the data used during the pandemic has been called into question on multiple occasions as hindsight has allowed a fresh view of decisions and opinions made in the context of a fast-moving, uncertain situation. For example, we have learnt that the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) used unverified Wikipedia data to inform early Covid modelling because there was simply nothing else available.

Errors and a less than ideal approach to sourcing data in the early days of the pandemic during a rapid mobilisation are understandable. But 11 months on, worrying mistakes, no doubt born out of haste, have continued.

The most recent misstep was the use of outdated data to suggest up to 4,000 people could die from the virus without a second lockdown. This claim was hastily revised and drew a rebuke from the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), and Sir David Spiegelhalter, arguably the country’s most eminent statistician, for confusing the public and undermining confidence in the statistics.

The good communication of science is a difficult and complex art form. Busy PowerPoint slides have been rushed through, with the press conference format leaving little scope for proper explanation. Complex graphs and models have been left to compete with whichever three-word slogan is to be implanted in the minds of the viewer that week.

All of this has become far more problematic as the collective resolve of the public, and their trust in government advice, has been worn down over time. The implication that official scientific advice is in some way infallible opens the door for a raft of conspiracy theorists and downright dangerous alternative advice when either errors occur or hindsight shines its light.

The rejection of experts is not a new phenomenon. Galileo was declared a heretic when he published his discoveries in the early-17th century. However, the growth of social media has eroded the position of science more rapidly than ever as barriers to proffering opinions, no matter how ill-evidenced, have vanished. But choosing to ignore economic modelling or pollsters, as with the Brexit vote, is a far cry from deciding to make up your own mind on public health advice intended to save lives. As Sir Isaac Newton once opined, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”

Most people will consider suggestions to combat the virus by ingesting bleach, or bathing in ultraviolet light, with the contempt they deserve. However, the proliferation of anti-lockdown marches, and the worrying rejection of vaccines before they have even arrived by small but vocal groups, suggests a more insidious and worrying growth of harmful alternative attitudes.

Furthermore, attempting to bend research and data to the timescales desired by politicians and journalists does not just risk lives – it undermines the pursuit of good science, no matter how well-meaning the attempt.

The race to find suitable diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines for Covid-19 has occurred at understandable pace but, as a consequence, the normal peer review process that provides the necessary checks and balances has been supplanted by a reliance on preprint studies and Twitter assertions. Donald Trump’s proclamation that Remdesivir was the silver bullet for coronavirus is a particularly egregious example of this; with the World Health Organisation since advising the drug is an ineffective treatment for the virus.

Scientists, for their part, have been catapulted into the limelight with a frequency never before seen in peacetime. Many have embraced the media profile. Some have engaged in one-upmanship with their peers in rival universities or other countries.

To understand why, you only need to look at how research is financed. The ability to demonstrate impact and secure funding, particularly in the UK, is assessed in multiple ways – but headlines play their part in developing reputations.

It is right to celebrate genuine scientific brilliance, but not at the expense of the methods and processes which underpin good science. Politicians will always want faster breakthroughs and to co-opt the publicity when they happen; the failed attempt to wrap the Oxford/AZ vaccine in the Union Jack is case in point. But as the CEO behind one of the other vaccine candidates, Dr Albert Bourla of Pfizer, has maintained, research and development should move ‘at the speed of science’. If ever there was a New Year’s resolution for all scientists to make entering 2021, that may well be it.

Vaccines will allow economies to ramp-up and the lights to go back on in industries around the world. As they do, scientists would do well to ensure their emphasis is on rigour over glamour. Science may well have come to the rescue like never before in this pandemic, but in saving global economies, it has dealt a heavy blow to its reputation.

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