A scientific tightrope

The two most senior scientific advisors to the UK, Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Advisor) and Professor Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer) have come into a lot of criticism recently for failing to say what they really believe regarding the Government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. As Civil Servants they are meant to be impartial and have steadfastly refused to be drawn into the politics. Some think this is a good thing, others not so much 

I thought I would recount an episode of my own career, which was not as pivotal to national safety by any means but tells a story of how a scientists can become conflicted between honesty and loyalty.

I ended my commercial days as the Chief Scientific Officer of a blue-chip company based in York, UK and Maryland USA. It was my job to give scientific advice on the commercial direction of the company and I helped Business Development present scientific options to potential clients. I needed diplomacy in that job and walking the tightrope between intellectual honesty and the company’s commercial goals was a tricky balancing act. I did it as best I could, although one person in Business Development (who I now consider a good friend) once said I suffered from “wise guy Tourettes”.

There was an occasion however, where the company started to sell a particular option which I believed was not viable. In fact I emailed the CEO explaining my concerns, and received the curt response, “solutions not problems.” It was a tough time because I was expected – indeed instructed – to sell this option even though I knew it wasn’t possible to deliver. I refused to do so, but dodged the inevitable bullet until one day I was on the podium at a conference in the USA, where the CEO presented this non-viable option to the audience. The participants, all experienced scientists, were skeptical and one asked me directly if I agreed. I decided the time had come and said, “no I don’t”. As you can imagine there were repercussions and I was prepared to lose my job. As it happened, other events interceded and I got away with it and this particular option was never actually sold.

This experience makes me empathise with Vallance and Whitty because their tightrope is a lot tighter than mine ever was. I recognise their careful responses to certain questions as the sort of bullet dodging answers I gave. The impact of one of them breaking ranks and defying the government however, would be much more far-reaching than me losing my job and so I understand how they continue to walk that tightrope.  There might come a time however, where scientific integrity overbalances and they have to take a stand. Perhaps the government going against SAGE’s advice to open schools might be one of those times, who knows?

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