Viewpoint: It’s better to admit ‘I don’t know’ than to speculate during a pandemic

30 Jun 2020 | Viewpoint

COVID-19 has elevated, but also exposed scientists. Politicians want clarity, but it’s crucial to explain what is known, unknown and unknowable, says Rolf-Dieter Heuer, chair of the EU group of chief scientific advisers

Rolf-Dieter Heuer

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, chair of the EU group of chief scientific advisers. Photo: Joi.

Scientists advising ministers on COVID-19 have become household names in Europe during the pandemic.

They have offered reassurance to a worried public, while also occasionally finding themselves under a harsh political spotlight.

“They’ve come into the firing line a bit. We can see how easily advice is converted to a quarrel when actually it may just be normal scientific criticism,” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, chair of the EU’s Group of seven chief scientific advisers told Science|Business.

The grave health crisis has elevated science advice but also exposed scientists in moments when uncertainty has clashed with the political imperative for action.

Science advisers are not beyond criticism for their performance in the past few months, said Heuer, particle physicist and former director general of the CERN nuclear physics research organisation. “The experience has hopefully opened their eyes, and taught them to adapt their language and to clearly state what they don’t know. They have to explain how science works – that might be even more crucial than the advice,” said Heuer.

Heuer was speaking following the publication of a report by his group offering general tips for giving good science advice.

The pandemic may have helped restore the standing of experts, but it has also offered scientists some bruising lessons in politics. Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has drawn heavy criticism for advising against lockdown measures adopted elsewhere. In the UK, Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson and Scotland’s chief medical adviser Catherine Calderwood, both became front page news for alleged breaches of lockdown rules.

“They are usually not used to this level of scrutiny. It explains how they look uneasy sometimes. I think also people expected too much from the scientists. We are still gathering a lot of additional knowledge on the disease. The crucial thing is to clearly explain what is known, unknown and unknowable,” Heuer said.

“That’s the charm and the fantastic thing about science. It’s much better to say ‘I don’t know’, than to speculate. Say, ‘it might take four weeks to get an answer’ if you’re unsure,” he said.

New go-to expert

With Europe facing its worst public health disaster in generations, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for Brussels to mobilise its own science advisers.

It was May before European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen appointed the renowned virologist Peter Piot as her special coronavirus adviser.

Meanwhile Heuer’s group, which occupies a separate unit inside the research directorate general, has not advised officials at all on COVID-19.  

“Our role is more the long-term aspect of the pandemic,” Heuer said. In autumn, Heuer’s group, together with the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, will publish their scientific opinion on better pandemic preparedness for the future.

The Heuer group, made up of scientists in fields from nanomaterials to plant biology, has previously advised on issues ranging from car emissions, cybersecurity and carbon capture, to agricultural biotechnology, and the use of the chemical glyphosate in fertiliser. On Monday, it published an opinion on the long term health effects of climate change. The commissioners pick the topics the group studies, but the advisers can also make their own suggestions.

“We are not a group that needs to jump in on the immediate aspects. We decided that it doesn’t help very much if we contribute on COVID-19 and confuse the picture in the beginning,” said Heuer.  

Heuer does not hint at any rivalry when discussing the commission’s new COVID-19 advisory regime. He doubts, anyway, that a team headed by a particle physicist would have been appropriate for the pandemic.

“I would not have liked being out there; I’m not at all trained for that, in that field. I would have no problem if it had been me in a group of two or more people, but not me as a complete outsider alone,” he said.

Piot, who contracted and survived COVID-19 in March, will serve for at least two years under von der Leyen. Heuer foresees the relationship working out well. “He is easy going, that helps. You can easily discuss and exchange things with him. He’s indisputably an expert in this field too,” he said.

Piot co-discovered the Ebola virus in Zaire in 1976 and has led pioneering research on HIV-AIDS. He previously directed the United Nations AIDS programme for 10 years. His appointment followed criticism of the EU’s slowness in grappling with the pandemic. Large majorities in all the countries surveyed in a recent poll said Brussels has been “irrelevant” during the crisis.  

The head of the European Research Council, Mauro Ferrari left in April, offering his own stinging review of the bloc’s response to the crisis. Ferrari also claimed he had been in personal contact with von der Leyen to present his ideas for handling COVID-19, at her invitation. Heuer disputes Ferrari’s criticisms. “I had the impression that he came to Brussels with the wrong assumptions on a number of things,” he said.

But like many governments, the commission was clearly wrong-footed by the pandemic in its early days. Asked if any commissioner has come for counsel on pandemic preparedness since 2015, when the group seven of advisers was created, Heuer says, “No, no one came to us on pandemics. But if I was a politician, there are many possible crises you’d have to face. For which one should I prepare?”

Finding a role for the EU on health matters – an area jealously guarded by member states – has traditionally been hard for Brussels too, Heuer points out. “The problem is that it’s the responsibility of individual countries. Look at Germany, it is the responsibility of 16 states. You can give guidelines, but you can’t tell states what they can do.”

Gaining visibility

Arguably, one drawback of the current EU system is the lack of an authoritative figure to stand next to the commission president when she speaks about COVID-19. In the UK, ministers have been flanked by a number of experts, including Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and chief science adviser Patrick Vallance. Sweden has Tegnell, while Germany’s go-to expert has been Christian Drosten, who directs the Institute of Virology at the Charité Hospital in Berlin.

The EU’s chief science advisers, by comparison, are scattered around Europe. Heuer lives in France while Piot is in the UK, where he heads the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“Maybe Brussels is missing that element,” Heuer said. “Though I have mixed feelings about individual scientific advisers. I prefer our model of a few scientists debating issues with each other, and having other scientists behind them too.

“But I understand that it’s a reassuring thing if you see someone in person; it’s a different feeling you get. So the visibility of a single person rather than seven, maybe that is something to look at in the future.”

Fights over who offers scientific advice to the EU is a defining feature of life in Brussels. The idea behind the EU chief advisory team was to take a decisive turn away from the one person adviser function. The group was created after environmental NGOs mounted a campaign against Anne Glover, a Scottish molecular biologist who was sole chief scientific adviser to then-commission president Josè Manuel Barroso, for her stance on genetically modified organisms (she said there wasn’t enough evidence to ban them outright.)

Despite their chief adviser titles, Heuer’s group has no direct line to the commission president. This would be good to have, he said. “Though we had a meeting with [vice-president Frans] Timmermans recently. So we’re getting closer to the top.”

There are, however, elements that work well with the current set-up, Heuer says. “We have a very fast reaction time between us.”

The group also has a back-up team, called the Scientific Advice for Policy by European Academies group, which gathers expertise from over 100 academies and societies across Europe. “I like this two-layer system as it removes potentials for conflicts of interest,” Heuer said.

In a report looking back over the group’s activities during its four-and-a-half year lifetime, EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel writes that Heuer’s team has “improved the thinking of the commission on some very challenging issues. The advisers have been important in pushing back against anti-expert, anti-science, populist discourse by providing sensible, evidence-based and independent advice,” she says.

Heuer’s role as chair ends in early 2021. For the same review, he writes that the group should provide advice on “more topics, more regularly.” He aspires for the advisers’ work to reach beyond Brussels, and suggests use “plainer language” and produce shorter reports. “In turn, I hope that the commissioners that we serve will support our efforts to strengthen evidence-based policy making,” Heuer says.  

The presence of his group, and the separate Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, under the same research portfolio in the von der Leyen administration may help each to “get more visibility,” Heuer said. “The goal is to work more together.”

New advisers will join in the autumn, as the group reshuffles its pack. “Three are facing out in November and I’m finishing up,” Heuer said. “I have sounded out some people for chair, but let’s see who comes in.”

After advising on pandemic preparedness later this year, the group will issue further advice on “crisis resilience” in spring 2021, Heuer said.

A positive legacy of the crisis would be to catapult science advice in Brussels. “We have gained visibility but our pandemic reports will be a new gradient for us,” Heuer said.

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