335 - Winter Snippets | Scoins.net | DJS

335 - Winter Snippets

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Oumamua Too many scientists are now mostly motivated by ego, by getting honours and awards, by showing their colleagues how smart they are. They treat science as a monologue about themselves rather than a dialogue with nature. They build echo chambers using students and postdocs who repeat their mantras so that their voice will be louder and their image will be promoted. But that’s not the purpose of science. Science is not about us; it’s not about empowering ourselves or making our image great. It’s about trying to understand the world, and it’s meant to be a learning experience in which we take risks and make mistakes along the way. You can never tell in advance, when you work on the frontier, what is the right path forward. You only learn that by getting feedback from experiments.

From a conversation with Avi Loeb in SciAm.

Later on: You write about a concept you call “‘Oumuamua’s wager,” after Pascal’s wager, 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal’s argument that the benefits of assuming God exists outweigh the drawbacks. Similarly, you say believing ‘Oumuamua is an alien artefact would be a net good because it could catalyse a revolution in space science and technology centred around a more vigorous search for life and intelligence beyond Earth. Even if that hunt finds no aliens, your reasoning goes, we’d still gain a much deeper understanding of our cosmic context. And the investments behind it would enhance our ability to answer other questions about the universe and perhaps even help stave off our own extinction.

Oumamua, still with SciAm. 



Fishing has been hit much as I expected by Brexit. Example piece. For the shellfish (permanent ban on selling live molluscs to the EU), the smart move would be to move the processing to then mainland here and export the cleaned molluscs in accord with the EU's demands. I expect there to be matching moves from the UK, exactly as consistent with previous declarations, such as removing classes of fishing (bottom trawling leaps to mind) in areas already classed as sensitive (Dogger Bank, for example). Did you know there are 73 offshore marine protected areas in UK waters? Next, we'll lose access to the cod fishing. This could easily escalate.A lot of problems will be created by the need for national politicians to express frustration with Johnny foreigner - it has the beneficial effect of bolstering support because the blame belongs elsewhere. Thus the Tories will revert very happily to making rejection noises, not recognising that France and Spain (and much of  the EU) is going to do exactly the same thing for the same reasons. Whether that means cooler heads will be the ones meeting to discuss things is, at the moment, unlikely. The UK is, obviously, a competitor state; that applies to fish quite as much as it applies to covid vaccine.


Capt Sir Tom Moore died today from (of course) covid. I do hope he is properly remembered in decades to come. BBC piece.


2021 Exams Given that UK exams are again not taking place, the general opinions expressed only look at the mass, Y11 or Y13: what about all those for whom that is merely assumption? There was a not irrelevant number of students who decided to defer university because of covid - they're going to be well caught out, competing for places with another cohort in that same position; there are some students who have gone through GCSE and started A-levels with no exams until their A-level and, perhaps worse, some who'll complete their A-level with no exams at all, having had virtually all of Y12 and Y13 in covid. There is a lot of students who have, on the other hand, had exams much as before (IGCSE, international A-levels) and these people are competing with those students who in some sense have been given a free pass. There are some students who produce wonderful results by working mostly on their own who will have been given depressed grades (I guess mostly boys), just as there are many who are given good estimated grades for similar but opposite reasons. So the balance of who continues onwards has been changed – it is not for me to say whether it is batter or worse, but I do say it is and will be different.

Thinking further on this and of the independent sector, the push at the top end to take more state-educated (and therefore fewer privately educated) is going to exaggerate these differences and a lot of additional work (or a lowering of standard / expectation) is taken on by whoever provides a course with an end objective such as university. For those who are international students there is a significant question always asked — what are the benefits over staying in the home country and does the difference justify the bill — where the answer has changed.

For example, consider the stereotypical Chinese sixth-former in Britain. They're over here for the embedded culture; some of their huge fee is used to subsidise the local Brits who provide that je-ne-sais-quoi that is being paid for. But in lockdown that element has not happened and lessons have been online – an online that may be taken within boarding or back home in the PRC. In both of these cases one would be asking whether the end result is any different from having enrolled at a local school in China offering an International element (i.e., A-levels). There would have been almost continuous teaching in English and Chinese for a lot less money; the end result (grades) will probably be better for less money. One wonders, as ever, about the hidden objectives of these students and their families.

The knock-on effects of five or six lost terms of teaching are going to reverberate for a long time. I expect that we have  choices, such as to cause a large number of students to repeat a year with the opportunity to disengage age from achievement, or to allow a cohort to be irreparably damaged, rescued by adult education offered later or a legion of other decisions that have no good sides. Solution and resolution, unachievable, I suspect. At an individual level not much of a problem, but at a regional and national level, quite a disaster. And, when the current crop of students have to compete with older cohorts, the missed education is going to stand out.

This position is not entirely new, for it surely occurred at the end of WWII, but then a very much smaller percentage went to university. Ref: Butler Education Act, 1944; Percy Report 1945; Barlow Report 1946. University population jumped from 51600 students 1938/9 and 1945/6 to 85400 in 1949/50. Source. In those days, one received a grant - in effect, there was no cost incurred in going to university and those who finished military service were offered good terms to take up a university place. Quite how good is hard to determine.


Foreign Oxbridge students?  Similar to the last item, the missus made comment that there are 136 Chinese with Oxbridge offers right now. She got this from a Chinese language website. So I had a look to see if there is a published breakdown. Here's one for Oxford that says Oxford has 9860 UK Undergrads and 15595 total students, and non-UK components labelled EU (970, 2984) and non-EU (1680, 7241) of which the Chinese (PRC and HK added) component is (479+165= 644, 1556+364= 1920)  where only the US is close, at (246,1606).

Cambridge's equivalents are UK, EU, other 14340, 3820, 6290 (total 24450, 12850 undergraduates), of which China (domiciled) takes 556 undergrads and 1568 places in total (HK adds 266, 436, making (822, 2004), which is more than Oxford, but proportionately less (not fewer, this once).

TES article on offers 2021. Oxford and Cambridge are far more likely to put increased weight on pre-interview admissions tests than rely on predicted grades. 20200819


 Which? on Brexit. No surprises, for those that can remember travel before 1975.


Advice from The Atlantic daily email 20210129 on how to bolster your wellness over the weekend. I've added comment in a different colour.

1 Try a jigsaw puzzle. How many have I created and done this week on the desktop, 4-600 pieces each? Eight?

2 Check in on a senior (don't do that in the UK, please). I wave to the neighbours; that's about all that fits with the rules.

3 Immerse yourself in fiction or 4 Read a great piece of journalism. I have read three books this week, read and written journalism, don't know about 'great'.

5 Hold a movie night (with food& drink). On your own in the UK !!  Unlikely, but the Prada Cup is on this weekend (that's sailing).

6 Make something (anything) with your hands. Done that; woodwork and cookery; more on the to-do list.

7 Turn to the philosophers  (Oh, you must be kidding) or 8, contemplate some poetry. Ditto from me; I'll contemplate it as an idea and reject it; blame English at school. If I am to read obscure English, the crossword [10] and my idea of a good read [3] both meet that.

9 Throw a solo dance party. No way, never done, not starting now. Modern dance (since 1950) leaves me cold and so does ballet. Both uninterested and actively disinterested. Structured dance with the missus would be different. Is this idea the gesture toward exercise?

10 Hone your crossword skills. Weekend Times crosswords and puzzles looked forward to right now. My sudoku per day stays above ten.

Of course they've missed out the exercise; elevated heart rate for 30 minutes or more every day. How much elevation is required remains unclear; I think you have to come to an internal assessment of what is 'enough'. I'm afraid I don't rate under 120 at all, which makes almost all of our walks irrelevant, no matter how long. 120 is around double resting heart rate in this house.


Transparency FullFact is offering a report, which has four main recommendations, much of which I already agree with, though I'm uncertain that any gov't inquiry produces results that turn into action, but maybe that's current cynicism overtaking sense:

  • Work with transparency and accountability: Government analysts should speak directly to the press, to ensure that complex statistical or data-related questions can be answered accurately and quickly
  • Correct communications mistakes: In light of last year’s missteps, there should be a Parliamentary inquiry into the oversight of government communications
  • Back up what you say with evidence: When ministers, government departments, or officials refer to data or information when speaking to the public, the media or Parliament, the full data must be made publicly available in real time
  • Be clear on targets: When the government publicly sets itself a specific target as part of a policy pledge, it should publish a set of metrics against which it will measure its progress, so the public and others can hold it to account.

This snippet maybe ought top be copied to the page on transparency, essay 297. That one might consider May '20 as being 'old' says a lot for just how fast we think our world is spinning at the moment. Full report (pdf). I reached the end 81/81, but I'd lost it (the will to take notice) by the time I reached the conclusions, though that might be that, having red what went before, the conclusions were by then entirely obvious, even if one were to disagree with them; I saw it as repetition for the benefit of those who refuse to read the whole.

There are three principles at work here: get your facts right, back up what you say with evidence and correct your mistakes. We have long had a consensus that, where a minister screws up, they resign, but this seems to have passed and, if it were to be replaced with evidence of learning (plus swift apology and correction), I'd accept that as preferable. I think we return to the need for there to be trusted sources of information, each supported by the fine print detail that allows one to be certain one has understood. Perhaps we even need to head towards test questions to show one has indeed read something properly. I'll consider adding that to my own work.

Daft stuff: tall guys get more Covid (exercise, attempt to explain what's wrong with this, and test that same argument against something you believe to be true, such as taxi drivers get more covid)

Serious stuff: suicide rates during the pandemic - have they changed, and if so, in what ways? How are errors in Hansard corrected? If a government analyst was allowed to speak (to the data), where might a political (spin) line be drawn? 

Hansard: That's not an error in the recording, but where what has been said needs correction; the issue is that the record must be accurate, but perhaps the (older) record needs cross-references to corrections uttered later, so that the reader of the (old) record can see that a correction was made. Changing the record has to be wrong.

Data analysis: Where might one draw a line between data collection & presentation and spin (from whatever shade of interested party)? How tongue-tied would mouthpieces be? Might there be some consensus over what were allowable questions? Might we actually move to a position where more of us are savvy with numbers, particularly statistics results? How might we draw a line over what is public and what should not be (and who decides that)? Good example of confusion; if you're going to record ethnicity ( of patients, say), how do you do that with consistency - however  the patient identifies, some agreed measurement / test? How might we do that without encouraging segregation? What a minefield. But data handling is one of those long before the opinionated start telling us what the data says. We need to become a nation of armchair statisticians, but that would require a clarity of thought we have learned not to do.



Live animal transport It is difficult to believe that the EU is the biggest exporter of live animals, which is the headline. A little closer reading says the border crossing measured are internal and external to the EU, which is equivalent to including state crossings in the US and provincial borders in China. This is the animal welfare lobby overstepping the mark. Yes, animals should be moved in appropriate conditions and they often aren't. Putting that idea adjacent to 'the EU is the biggest' (not true, I think) implies that the EU is necessarily the worst offender; they might be but that is not what the data says. The EU has pretty high standards for movement within the union.   Guardian 20210127


Wondering at my reaction to the White paper below, that the buck stops at the nearest Tory crony pocket, I had a look for articles on oversight. Here's one, aimed at business processes, written as if for a governing board overseeing business risk. I see this as entirely applicable to government. For balance you might read this, a response 20201223 to the NY Times 20201217 claims of cronyism in UK gov't. Much of this disputes the impression I have picked up from reading the media, such as, referring to PPE, We found that only 0.5% of products tested to date cannot be used. Mind, whether 'we' is the cabinet office of the National Audit office, is unclear; even writing that comment demonstrates the cynicism applied to political output from No10 (which I see as the same as the Cabinet Office, ruled easily by spin doctors, though I'd like to be convinced otherwise).    

DJS  20210125


Education White Paper

The White Paper on Education, released this week, is an update on the matter of further education. Also, a day later, the post-16 Further Education Skills for Jobs White Paper.  The first of these is content that I'd expect the media to lap up but, if they did, I missed it entirely. For example, it explains what sort of gadget is on offer (for collection) to schools to pass on to disadvantaged pupils; there's quite a lot of detail about funding and when to apply for it; it discusses how BTECs might be examined this year.

The White paper ¹ proposes that from 2025 people can access flexible student finance so they can train and retrain throughout their lives. So that doesn't mean it's free and it implies this will be paid for, but perhaps if it is not paid in the same way that student loans are not, this may be a good thing. I dislike the falsity of the way it is presented, that you will pay back this 'loan'. You might read this, on future funding.My read of this says there's a lot which agrees with what I wrote about the future of education, though at no time then did I find or read the Augur report. Phrases such as Lifetime Skills Guarantee and lifelong learning loan allowance may need adding to the vocabulary, but equally one might wait until it actually happens before bothering. I'm afraid all of this output reads to me as far too indirect to cause change; the sort of thing where the government points to allocations of funding and says "Look what we did", but no appreciable change occurs, so that the gov't can put hand on heart and say "Not us, not our fault". Of course it is; where did you think the metaphorical buck stops? The cynical observation of the moment is that the buck stops at the nearest Tory crony pocket; if I was in government then there'd be money put aside for an independent check of progress, including some notable effort to make sure that the money is used effectively, even publicly accounted for.  Heard of T-levels?

Reading: Independent review of TEF (Teaching Excellence[...] Framework).     Oh my it looks boring.

FE Capital restoration fund. So why don't I believe this, either? Too late? More loans? I'm (almost) embarrassed at my reaction.

Skills for Jobs 20210121 the White paper itself. Screen version here. I am amazed how vague the writing is.For example  under the title Lifetime Skills Guarantee,  Our reforms will deliver the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, as set out in his speech in September 2020. This Government will help everyone to get the skills they need at every stage in their lives. That is no explanation, it is froth. I think the intention is to move the mass of people whose education reached only levels 2 and 3 and 4 up one, much as I described the need in Essays 312 and 324. The more I read of this, the more I wanted to have someone else have worked through what it does and does not say; I'm afraid `I rapidly became very frustrated at the vagueness, not least that so much was implied as common knowledge when one of the few things we have learned about education is that we do not have the common experience that is so widely assumed. Therefore it seems to me that a lot of detail needs to be set out as 'This is what we mean by <thing>". In a sense, this is academic and political waffle, where precision is needed. Perhaps what it needs is examples, imaginary case studies for students and colleges - but lots of them.

38. Most occupations require competence in English, maths, and digital skills.31 However, 49% of adults have numeracy skills no better than the level expected of an 11-year-old; for literacy, it is 15%.32 52% of the workforce do not have essential digital skills for work.33 We need to address this so employers get the competent staff they need and people without these skills can develop them in order to find a good job, or progress their careers.

39. Our reforms to date encourage people to gain these basic skills by requiring 16-19-year-old students without an approved intermediate level (level 2) in English and maths to continue studying these subjects. Achieving an approved qualification at this level is also an exit requirement for T Levels and is necessary to complete an advanced technical (level 3) or higher apprenticeship. In addition, under our legal entitlements, any adult who does not already have an intermediate (level 2) qualification in English and/or maths can be fully funded to study these qualifications.  "Can be fully funded"? Could this not be more definite? What is missing here is the ability to point to somewhere else (detail of funding for level 2 irrespective of age); it is as if the gov't writing is still stuck to paper equivalence. The Guardian could give lessons.

I gave up. But I may try again.           

    DJS  20210124

1 White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. White Papers are often published as Command Papers and may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned.  Source. Command Papers is a term covering several sorts of publication, see here. The implication from the first sentence is that some white papers are not command papers; some command papers are not numbered. This vagueness is not good; see thinking on transparency. I had a hunt for the why and wherefore; included in what I found is that command papers are a class of published paper (but not all of it) supposedly easy for the public to scrutinise; but finding these (like where the numbering is up to, or what is recent or forthcoming, proved quite difficult. Look at UK.Gov official documents. So, for example the White paper for education is CP358, which I see as a disturbingly small number, but that is because the numbering is restarted with each Parliamentary session, which means that finding a paper by number is not sufficient; you'd need the date (Jan 2021 in that case). When I looked to see what is available I found around 24,500. I found the 'most viewed' interesting, which is what is linked. My browser shows what I've viewed and quite a few of that list had already been looked at by me, mostly to do with checking paper on the car, like tax & MoT.
Try hunting what other papers might be CP358.  Search the webpage offering search service with 'CP 358' (space essential). This becomes an exercise in the use of search; I'd set this for an IT class homework, but give them different numbers – it's all published paper, so there are no consequences from having a look. Or trying to.

HC358 2016-7


Comment in the Guardian in mid-Jan [0] to the tune of Brexit told-you-so. It is not at all hard to find people in fishing who were and are (so they're remaining as) pro-Brexit, yet who now find the disaster that is the consequence. Result, already there are people getting out of fishing permanently.The blame game will say there could (always) have been a better Deal, but the deal was always going to leave fishing as a poor relation from a pragmatic point of view, though the political response will always be "and now it gets better". This is evidence, I think, of poor communication all around; what the fishermen really want (substantially more income, probably), what the politicians think they want and think the wider public wants to be told - and so on. I wonder if we ever have good communication. Articles  0 2 3 4 

    DJS  20210118


Spotted very shortly after publication, I read here that a test case has shown that small businesses with business interruption insurance policies will be claiming for the interruption caused by the pandemic. This was a good case to bring as the petitioners are very many but all very small and the insurance companies themselves not certain what the distinctions are. The result is a complex and detailed ruling that will serve all parties well and means that insurers will be paying out fairly immediately. I do hope that doesn't give the Government an excuse to provide a lot less support. Earlier report from September. If the ruling itself surfaces, I'll link to it. Meanwhile, there's this:  https://www.insurancebusinessmag.com/uk/news/breaking-news/revealed-the-supreme-court-ruling-for-fca-business-interruption-insurance-case-243648.aspx

Rather to my surprise, this item made it to the national news that evening. I see that as evidence of my misunderstanding how news collection is rated as relevant to the public at large.  I'll write more on this as matters develop, or bin the entry as shown to be irrelevant.

    DJS  20210115


The approach to keeping NI in line—free of troubles—is to point often to the wealth (literally) of opportunity in having a remarkably free border with the South and a pretty free one across the Irish Sea. I hear lots of moaning about that line drawn at the coast, but the relevant minster (who seems to be Gove again; he's good at detail even if otherwise easily detested) appears to be reducing the mountain of problem detail with remarkable rapidity. Of course, many people want exactly those freedoms they had before and the political solution is to point out that they mostly do, and that the (small) restrictions they see are in fact (large) opportunity. All Ferengi would approve.


While GCSE and A-levels are in some sense 'off' again this year, that situation does not apply to all the exams offered internationally. That's the International Baccalaureate [IB], the International version of GCSEs, many of which are sat in Britain, and all those A-levels and GCSEs Britain offers overseas - which would explain why I had an enquiry from Cambridge [CIE] to see if I'm available for work [No]. So the many independent schools within the UK that prefer the IGCSE and use the IB have a bit of a problem in that some classes have no exam this year and some do. Yet again, another fine mess, but not of the MinEd's making. Though Gavin Williamson (MinEd himself) is such a good scapegoat I'm sure he'll be blamed.


We have, unusually, a principle being applied at government level. That is, that the strategy for delivery of vaccine (I still prefer to use the noun inoculate) is aimed to minimise death from covid. That is not to be confused with diminishing spread or infection; the jab dramatically reduces the risk of serious infection, so it succeeds in both preventing death and reducing those to be hospitalised. This principle then cause the strategy to be to target those most at risk, which amounts to those in care (staff and inmates), the very old, those on the medical frontlines and then steadily working through the population of other old folk and other health workers. By the time we reach wanting to jab the under 50s we need very much more inoculate because we also need to move to the second jab for those 'done' already.

There are arguments being had over the delay between jabs; it is reasonably argued that the optimum position, reducing the risk of death, may diminish the position of the very aged somewhat. I think we'll find a way of having more jabs available when we need to move to a bigger population being jabbed. Arguments for special cases, teachers for example, are not supported by the available data, which says that serious illness among specialised people (again, teachers) is not different from the position of the general population. That is looking at deaths, not spread, as already explained. So the principle is being applied and, only when that is satisfied, will secondary principles such as reduction of infection spread—be a luxury (!!) we can afford. 

I support this thinking. I continue to think that I am personally safer if the missus in inoculated in my place, but that is me too mixing inoculation with risk of infection not risk of death from consequences of the infection.


Just in case you didn't notice, the evening after the mob invaded the Capitol (the afternoon of Wednesday , 20210106) there was a vote that evening on whether to overturn the election result. A whole 66% of the Republicans (that's 139 representatives and 89 senators) voted for the proposal. This I find astonishing and I think that historians will too. Report.  I see the whole episode as a demonstration of the failure of so-called democracy to perform as advertised. What we see instead is democracy for those who have what they want, whatever that is, and the power to make having more of what they want a possibility. That does emphatically not mean encouraging those who have not been voting to feel that a vote might be a good thing to exercise. That is minority rule, is it not? Is counter to democracy? Then either admit a more honest name to the system or make it an honest system. Else the result is recognition by the neighbours that this is a false house, built on poor foundations. To parade around the world demanding recognition for having 'the best system' as Trump would have put it—when patently this is not so—is to instead parade a belief in falsehoods and imply that doing business with such people is not going to end well.

    DJS  20210108

Follow up on this topic: impeachment has begun and is occurring, but the whole thing is a farce and I see it as a waste of time and resource that could be better used. For impeachment to be confirmed (like, for there to be a result other than acquittal), ⅔ of the House has to vote the same way. That is not going to occur, for the GOP will not hang its own, even as it works to distance itself from The Donald. So I really do not see the point. There is media coverage but I cannot be bothered to follow it because the result is already known. Of far more interest, actually, are the events unfolding in Georgia, where the phone call from DT to the guy i/c the count was recorded; this results in a 'proper' court case, since it is very likely that real rules were broken and the result goes to the judiciary, not to politicians. The US, which so often parades itself as a bastion of democracy, is shown (yet again) to be wanting in that very regard. I have long agreed that the separation of judiciary, administration and bureaucracy is a desirable feature, so I find the whole business of impeachment runs contrary to the fundamental idea. Reference the piece I wrote about the UK Supreme Court, though at the time I didn't know we had such a thing. Pro Rogue, written Sep '19, which currently feels a very long time ago. 


Edit/addition 20220630   Senate committee hearings into this affair have fdragged on and on and it is only this week that there has been testimony that causes any recognition that 'we know now'. Cassidy Hutchinson is a young woman who was in the room for various events that, at the time, no-one wanted to hear about. Her testimony provides detail that seems to shift the consensus from 'perhaps' to 'really'. particularly, that Trump knew the crowd was armed and dangerous, that he specifically removed (commanded the removal of) the magnetometers that identified who was carrying weapons, that he knew he'd lost and was determined to overturn that result, pointing the maddened crowd at the Justice department at Congress and at his own VP. How is this not seen as treason (levying war against the nation, attacking a state authority to whom one owes allegiance), seeking to overthrow the government?


found, on asking the exact question, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/05/the-capitol-attack-treason. An apposite question is, also, "Why is there so little discussion of this?" All the answers point to how easy it is to bog down any legal dispute in the USA, so that perfectly accurate terms such as treason as it was meant when the Constitution was written (exactly what Trump is now known to have been doing) has somehow been redefined so that it can be argued that only non-Americans could do this — which is precislely what treason is not. Seditious conspiracy is more likely to be a successful complaint (charge; why will they not say what they mean? Because the lawyers are too strong when backed by unlinited funds and have clearly argued successfully in the past that black is white and white black. Thus any terminology means whatever they want it to mean. Boris employs such an attitude every day). The advantage of a charge of seditious consipracy is that it quite clearly applies to many people present near the Capitol on Jan 6th. Making the charge stick, though, demands proof that there was both action and agreement. Where, I suspect agreement means there was some sort of plan (of attack, of intent, of concerted action)


BMJ Editorial shared by an FB friend in Jan'21

Covid-19: politicisation, “corruption,” and suppression of science

BMJ 2020371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4425 (Published 13 November 2020)Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4425

When good science is suppressed by the medical-political complex, people die

Politicians and governments are suppressing science. They do so in the public interest, they say, to accelerate availability of diagnostics and treatments. They do so to support innovation, to bring products to market at unprecedented speed. Both of these reasons are partly plausible; the greatest deceptions are founded in a grain of truth. But the underlying behaviour is troubling.

Science is being suppressed for political and financial gain. Covid-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it is harmful to public health.1 Politicians and industry are responsible for this opportunistic embezzlement. So too are scientists and health experts. The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency—a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.

The UK’s pandemic response provides at least four examples of suppression of science or scientists. First, the membership, research, and deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) were initially secret until a press leak forced transparency.2 The leak revealed inappropriate involvement of government advisers in SAGE, while exposing under-representation from public health, clinical care, women, and ethnic minorities. Indeed, the government was also recently ordered to release a 2016 report on deficiencies in pandemic preparedness, Operation Cygnus, following a verdict from the Information Commissioner’s Office.34

Next, a Public Health England report on covid-19 and inequalities. The report’s publication was delayed by England’s Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following a public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report.56 Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media. Third, on 15 October, the editor of the Lancet complained that an author of a research paper, a UK government scientist, was blocked by the government from speaking to media because of a “difficult political landscape.”7

Now, a new example concerns the controversy over point-of-care antibody testing for covid-19.8 The prime minister’s Operation Moonshot depends on immediate and wide availability of accurate rapid diagnostic tests.9 It also depends on the questionable logic of mass screening—currently being trialled in Liverpool with a suboptimal PCR test.1011

The incident relates to research published this week by The BMJ, which finds that the government procured an antibody test that in real world tests falls well short of performance claims made by its manufacturers.1213Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sensibly pushed to publish their study findings before the government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked by the health department and the prime minister’s office.14 Why was it important to procure this product without due scrutiny? Prior publication of research on a preprint server or a government website is compatible with The BMJ’s publication policy. As if to prove a point, Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block The BMJ’s press release about the research paper. 

Politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification. Science is rarely absolute. It rarely applies to every setting or every population. It doesn’t make sense to slavishly follow science or evidence. A better approach is for politicians, the publicly appointed decision makers, to be informed and guided by science when they decide policy for their public. But even that approach retains public and professional trust only if science is available for scrutiny and free of political interference, and if the system is transparent and not compromised by conflicts of interest.

Suppression of science and scientists is not new or a peculiarly British phenomenon. In the US, President Trump’s government manipulated the Food and Drug Administration to hastily approve unproved drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir.15 Globally, people, policies, and procurement are being corrupted by political and commercial agendas.16

The UK’s pandemic response relies too heavily on scientists and other government appointees with worrying competing interests, including shareholdings in companies that manufacture covid-19 diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.17 Government appointees are able to ignore or cherry pick science—another form of misuse—and indulge in anti-competitive practices that favour their own products and those of friends and associates.18

How might science be safeguarded in these exceptional times? The first step is full disclosure of competing interests from government, politicians, scientific advisers, and appointees, such as the heads of test and trace, diagnostic test procurement, and vaccine delivery. The next step is full transparency about decision making systems, processes, and knowing who is accountable for what.

Once transparency and accountability are established as norms, individuals employed by government should ideally only work in areas unrelated to their competing interests. Expertise is possible without competing interests. If such a strict rule becomes impractical, minimum good practice is that people with competing interests must not be involved in decisions on products and policies in which they have a financial interest.

Governments and industry must also stop announcing critical science policy by press release. Such ill judged moves leave science, the media, and stock markets vulnerable to manipulation. Clear, open, and advance publication of the scientific basis for policy, procurements, and wonder drugs is a fundamental requirement.19

The stakes are high for politicians, scientific advisers, and government appointees. Their careers and bank balances may hinge on the decisions that they make. But they have a higher responsibility and duty to the public. Science is a public good. It doesn’t need to be followed blindly, but it does need to be fairly considered. Importantly, suppressing science, whether by delaying publication, cherry picking favourable research, or gagging scientists, is a danger to public health, causing deaths by exposing people to unsafe or ineffective interventions and preventing them from benefiting from better ones. When entangled with commercial decisions it is also maladministration of taxpayers’ money. 

Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably commonplace in democracies.20 The medical-political complex tends towards suppression of science to aggrandise and enrich those in power. And, as the powerful become more successful, richer, and further intoxicated with power, the inconvenient truths of science are suppressed. When good science is suppressed, people die.


Posted by someone who wants to rejoin the EU. I see this as a biased representation - where's Nato, for example? 5I? Indeed, where is Serbia, Albania and other countries that consider themselves in Europe at least as much as we do?

Covid            Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2021