Dominic Cummings and SAGE: advisory group’s veil of secrecy has to be lifted

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26th April 2020

In The Conversation


Associate Professor in Science Policy and Knowledge Infrastructure, UCL

Dominic Cummings, the UK prime minister’s chief political adviser, and his colleague Ben Warner have attended meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Is this a big deal?
A report by a team of reporters in the Guardian newspaper claimed the pair were “on the secret scientific group”. A government statement was heavily critical of the report, but said Cummings and Warner had attended meetings. It claimed they were not members of the body, but occasionally asked questions.

SAGE provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision makers during emergencies. The government statement said Cummings may have answered questions “when scientists mention problems in Whitehall”. This has caused outrage in some quarters. Sir David King, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, was reportedly “shocked” to hear that Cummings had been attending some SAGE meetings. “If you are giving science advice, your advice should be free of any political bias,” he told The Guardian, adding on Twitter it “marries with all of my worst fears”.

I research how policy makers use scientific evidence, and a key question for me is what role Cummings was playing on SAGE. There is a potential spectrum of engagement with the group which at one end is perfectly acceptable and at the other is completely unacceptable.

It could well be that Cummings wanted to listen to SAGE discussions so that he could gain an understanding of how the debate within SAGE led to its summaries and recommendations. This to my mind would be fine. After all, in conditions of extreme uncertainty, like with COVID-19, the debate is at least as important as the conclusions of deliberation.

One might argue that his very presence could impede on the independence of the advice. But I would contend that the members of SAGE are all grown-ups and can act independently even when being observed.

It is conceivable that in this scenario a SAGE member might have the occasional question for Cummings, for example, on the political parameters within which they are working. Would this be improper? Again, not necessarily; although it may have been more appropriate to have an apolitical cabinet civil servant present.

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