Parliamentary Links Day: Q & A

Published: 27 Aug 2020

Parliamentary Links Day is the largest science event on the annual Parliamentary calendar, and brings together scientists, learned societies and MPs. You can read our summary of the event in this news story.

The British Pharmacological Society submitted questions ahead of the event and several of these questions were selected. Here is a selection of questions that were asked during a panel discussion between Professor Dame Anne Glover from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan from the Royal Society, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell from the Council for Science & Technology and Sir David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University. You can click on the questions to watch them being answered on YouTube. 

Question: In recent months inequality – beyond gender – in science and the wider world has become more visible. Alongside this, the newly published UK Research and Development Roadmap recognises the importance of an R&D system that works for everyone. Does the panel agree that trust in the science must continue to be earned through active steps to make research and the research workforce inclusive? What are the panel’s priorities for this?

Dame Anne Glover: We’ve become very aware about inequality issues across the UK and globally. In my role as president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, we are looking at our own policies regarding R&D and how we fund projects and how equality can be underpinning that. Equality and diversity. One example, for many years, both in developing new drugs e.g. cardiovascular disease, or in developing interventions such as wearing of seatbelts and the anatomical difference between men and women. All of these things have been designed primarily for men, but 50% of the population are women so the adverse effects of drugs and how they impact on women was never considered for very many drugs. Richness and value can be brought to research by looking at diversity and inequality. In our R&D agendas, we must address these issues. It is for everyone and it is paid for by everyone.
Stephen Metcalfe (chairing the meeting): This is true. Increasing the presence of women in the research workforce is vitally important.

Question: Rigour in the review process of experimental work is a critical element that impacts upon public trust in science.  Recent high-profile retractions in some of the most influential non-learned society owned journals suggests a lack of rigour in the review process. What changes do the panel think might be made to process to address this issue.
Professor Sir Venki Remakrishnan: This is a complicated problem. At the frontiers of science, things are never very clear. Even if you review a paper, it doesn’t mean the paper is guaranteed to be right. High profile journals are often publishing things right at the frontiers where much of the excitement is so they may often be more wrong than say more mainstream journals which are doing more incremental science. So, I think this is a complicated question. The way to deal with it is to be transparent, to accept that just because something is published in a peer-reviewed journal doesn’t mean that it is absolutely guaranteed to be true. If there are doubts, they should be checked, they should be tested, maybe other experiments need to be done. Scientific truths never get established based on a single paper, or at least, very rarely. Evidence builds up in one direction and then the science is reviewed as an ongoing process.
Dame Nancy Rothwell: The rigour and review process is critical. The trouble is, it is done for free by busy people who don’t always have the time to put in to go through it in great detail. I think we need to value and review the reward process more so that people treat it as a job. Many scientists do treat it very very seriously indeed, but not all of them do. Personally, I would prefer if my name was put to reviews, so I am accountable for it. I know that can be difficult, especially for younger scientists who may be unwilling to criticise more senior peers, but open peer review is something we have got to consider. There is something to be said for non-biology disciplines where peer review is done by the community – a paper is put on the web and reviewed by the entire community before it is accepted. This could be the direction we are moving in in biology.

Question: As preprint servers (non-peer reviewed studies) are becoming more prominent, and there is media appetite for preliminary results, how can we ensure continued integrity and public trust in research? Does the panel agree that there is a role for aligning communication of high priority research findings with official channels such as government briefings?
Dame Nancy Rothwell: Preprint or publication prior to peer-review does have some value in getting things out quickly. It carries risk though. We have seen this with all sorts of data coming out of the COVID-19 studies. More studies that need to be verified. In this situation, where everybody is naturally worried, people grab onto those “new cure” headlines, it is difficult to temper that, good to get results out where we can but we have to be very clear when these are small studies that need to be verified. Many times, there have been small clinical studies with one result, goes to a bigger studies or is repeated and then does not pan out. We need to be cautious when we press release because we might have to backtrack later. That can be damaging.

Question: Do Minister’s statements that they are following the science in response to COVID-19 enhance or hinder public trust in science?

Dame Anne Glover: It is a good idea that ministers are following the science but in terms of trust, for us to know that they are following the science we need to know what the science is that they say they are following – this is a transparency issue. If ministers say that they are ‘following the science’ then, you or I, need to be able to identify what that science is so we can demonstrate to ourselves that this is credible. At the beginning of the crisis, saying that they were following the science and not being clear almost felt like they were piggybacking on the trust the public has in science.

Professor Sir Venki Ramakrisnan: When Ministers say they are following the science, they are trying to convey to the public that there decisions are not arbitrary, but it is slightly misleading as there is no such thing as ‘the’ science. Regardless of the situation, Ministers have to make decisions. It would be better to say they are seriously considering the science in all of their decisions. Because science advice is not the same as implementation of policy. We have seen this in facemasks. The principle of a facemask is a reduction of transmission but how and where you choose to apply it and in what way is a policy question.

Dame Nancy Rothwell: ‘Following the science’ as a phrase can be quite misleading because it suggests there is a known answer that we all agree with. What would be better to say is that we’re following the scientific evidence and following the scientific consensus, because this is changing all the time.

Professor Sir David Speigalhalter: The phrase ‘Following the science’ is deeply misleading. It suggests that science is a monolithic body of knowledge. This crisis has revealed that this is nonsense. Scientific advice is only one part of political decisions made. It might be better for politicians to say something like “we’ve been listening to scientific opinion” or “taking scientific opinion into account”. This would be a much fairer and honest account of what they are doing and what they should do.


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