By Amit Roy
THERE is no one better to defend scientists than Prof Sir Venkatraman (“Venki”) Ramakrishnan, whose five-year term as president of the Royal Society will end in December 2020.
Right from the start of this coronavirus pandemic, the government’s refrain has been: “We are following scientific advice.”
But now some of the government’s policies are being questioned – for example, whether it was too slow to impose the lockdown. A number of politicians are trying to blame scientists for the key decisions taken.
The work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, told Sky News that ministers could “only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that we have at the time”, and that “if the science advice at the time was wrong, I am not surprised people think we made the wrong decision”.
Asked about the growing blame game when he appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday (24), Venki gave a convincing defence of his industry: “Scientists are working flat out to help with this pandemic.
“What they don’t want when faced with very uncertain facts that are rapidly emerging – they’re giving their best advice at the moment – is to be blamed or found culpable in hindsight when more evidence comes along and the evidence changes.
“That would be a very bad thing, but it is reassuring that at least Number 10 has recognised that and scientists should feel comfortable about giving frank advice. Otherwise, if they’re not encouraged to be frank, that’s really bad in terms of moving forward.”
He was asked about a comment made by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt who alleged: “The failure to look at what the Asian countries were doing at the outset will rank as one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes.”
Venki gave a robust answer: “You have to remember that science advice is only one part of what government policy is. What it eventually ends up being depends on a number of factors or the advice they get from scientists and various problems with implementation, political considerations. And you can see that the same facts about the virus were accessible worldwide. Yet many countries, from Sweden and the US and Britain to New Zealand and Taiwan, all had completely different – or not completely – but they’ve had distinctly different responses to the same scientific questions.”
What I found interesting was Venki’s endorsement for wearing a mask in public places: “I think it’s going to be quite a useful tool to tackle the pandemic. Remember, the virus can be transmitted by a variety of routes.
“One of them is through exhalation of droplets. These droplets can be directly inhaled by others or land on surfaces – surfaces can be touched and can contaminate others.
“There are conditions where you cannot distance yourself, for example, in public transport or in crowded spaces, or indeed in certain work spaces, where people occasionally have to come together.
“If we want to emerge from the lockdown, we want to block all of these routes.”