Shadow Science Advice
The pandemic has highlighted key lessons for the conduct of oppositional science advisory mechanisms
One important aspect of responses to Covid-19 around the world revealed by our EScAPE project has been the role played by shadow science advisors and groups. We define “shadow science advice” as follows:
Formal or informal mechanisms of advice established outside of governmental science advisory processes to provide a counter or opposition body of legitimate, authoritative and credible guidance to policy makers.
During the pandemic there have been no shortage of shadow science advice. Here are a few examples:
United Kingdom: The Independent SAGE. The group describes itself as “a group of scientists who are working together to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.”
Sweden: Vetenskapsforum COVID-19 (Science Forum COVID-19). The group describes its mission: “to save lives and prevent all forms of suffering in the Covid-19 pandemic. We aim to provide an unbiased assessment of the ongoing scientific discussion to find the best path to handle the pandemic through scientifically informed and ethical decisions. The overall goal is to minimize the impact of Covid-19.”
Netherlands: Red Team. The group describes its efforts as: “To reflect on the official advice and positions of the government… and to test them against scientific knowledge, international knowledge and experience, and logical consistency from different perspectives. Detecting social observations. Explain and interpret policy and epidemiological situation according to official figures. Advising the government, members of parliament on strategy, standpoints, policy, approach and communication.”
There are many others, including those who drafted the Great Barrington Declaration and the John Snow Memorandum, each unaffiliated with any particular national context, and offering diametrically opposed views on the science and policy of COVID-19. Indeed, the U.S. National Science Foundation project that I lead — EScAPE: Evaluation of Science Advice in a Pandemic Emergency — focusing on 16 country case studies is an example of shadow science advice on science advice.
Shadow science advice is not a new phenomenon. Scientists have long organized themselves in efforts to influence policy making through channels outside of formal government advisory bodies. For instance, in 1955, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling and eight other scientists issues a memorandum calling for policy makers to commit to the peaceful resolution of disputes in order to avoid nuclear war. That memorandum led directly to the establishment of the Pugwash Conferences which, along with their founder Joseph Rotblat, won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.”
Today, it is common for self-organized scientists to provide expert advice counter to formal government advisors on a very wide range of subjects and from across the political spectrum. It important to distinguish organizations that actively lobby for the interests of the research and development community — such as greater public spending on science and technology — from those who come together to bring their expertise to bear on other types of policy questions. Shadow science advice refers generally to the latter.
Although shadow science advice is commonplace, the pandemic has provided the entire world with a shared body of experience and highlighted that shadow science advice can be constructive or pathological. The word “shadow” as a descriptor was chosen over other possibilities — like “informal,” “non-governmental” or “independent” — to highlight a key feature of such bodies, their legitimacy in democracies and commitment to serving the public interest.
The notion of a “shadow” body of advisors is taken directly from the British tradition of a “shadow cabinet” organized by the party in opposition to the government. A key feature of the opposition party is that while it holds views on policy that may be at odds with those in power, the group is nonetheless committed to shared values and objectives, hence the phrase “the loyal opposition.”
Shadow science advisors are expected to serve as a loyal opposition. As Helms (1994) observes, such opposition is central to the very practice of democracy:
[T}he principle of legitimate political opposition belongs to the most fundamental components of any liberal democracy. In the major works on the basic character of pluralist polities, freedom of speech and the right to publicly and legitimately oppose the policies and actions of the government of the day have been considered as central to the overall concept of liberal democracy as the existence of free and fair elections. . .
Of course, the notion that there exists a loyal and legitimate opposition implies that there can also be disloyal and illegitimate opposition. One of the lessons that has thus far emerged from our EScAPE project is that we experts have not given much thought to what constitutes ethical and appropriate practices for the provision of shadow science advice, despite its ubiquity and influence.
Here are three suggestions for such practices, offered here to start such a discussion:
Do not delegitimize official science advisors or science advisory mechanisms. In the United States, considerable effort was spent by shadow science advisors to delegitimize official governmental advice and institutions — notably by Scott Atlas of Stanford University who associated himself with the Great Barrington Declaration minimizing the COVID-19 threat and opposing lockdowns. Atlas gained such prominence in the media for his efforts that President Donald Trump brought him into government as his chief pandemic advisor, representing a sort of hostile take-over of governmental science advise by a disloyal opposition.
The effects of the campaign to delegitmize government expertise were profound. The figure below shows the public’s loss of trust in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most prominent U.S. government public health expert during 2020. Whatever one’s policy differences with the positions of government advisors in CDC, it should be clear that no effective response to a pandemic is possible without a CDC that trusted by the general public.
The attacks on the legitimacy of government public health expertise led to an across-the-board collapse in public trust and saw expertise become deeply politicized. Efforts to delegitimize the nation’s leading public health institutions cannot be called anything other than the work of a disloyal opposition.
Make clear roles and responsibilities. The name of a leading shadow science advisory group in the United Kingdom is the “Independent SAGE.” The name is a play on the government’s formal science advisory body, SAGE, the Science Advisory Group for Emergencies. By appropriating the name of the government’s main COVID-19 science advisory body, the iSAGE is bound to create confusion among the public and policy makers as to the group’s purpose and composition. For instance,
The two groups have been mixed up on more than one occasion. During news broadcasts, members of Independent SAGE (who are not also on SAGE) have accidentally been referred to as members of the official SAGE by reporters and they have had to correct them. Another more specific example of this mix up happened on the 22 May  when the deputy Labour Minister, Angela Rayner, accidentally referred to SAGE after Independent SAGE had published a report advising against the reopening of schools on 1 June  . . .
To the extent that such confusion is created, government science advice may be delegitimized — not in the overt manner of open attack seen in the United States, but more insidiously.
Further, the tagline for the Independent SAGE is “following the science.” However, the group is clearly engaged in overt political advocacy for its preferred policy options, as shown in the timeline below of various iSAGE reports produced in 2020.
Policy advocacy is of course a legitimate form of expert advice, but to claim that such advocacy represents “following the science” is to engage in a form of stealth advocacy that hides values behind a façade of science. An alternative approach to the appropriation of expert advice from the government would be to work to improve government advisory processes, by making recommendations on how shortfalls in those processes might be addressed or improved.
The tweet below from the head of the Independent SAGE suggests that he views the body as complementary to government science advice. However, the entire point of establishing a formal mechanism of advice outside of government is to challenge what are seen as shortfalls in the substance or process of formal expert advice. Indeed much of the work of Independent SAGE has been to criticize the government.
The Independent SAGE no doubt has made some positive contributions to discussions of COVID-19 policy in the U.K., but it also has added to confusion about its role in the advisory landscape.
Consistently evaluate the contributions of shadow science advice to policy and politics. Everyone loves science, or at least they claim to. And why not? After all science offers the most effective process for discovering reliable knowledge, including that knowledge which can inform action. However, it is a myth that shadow science advisors can be “independent” (UK) or “unbiased” (Sweden). As Melanie Smallman has written, “At a time of a global pandemic, bringing more—and more diverse—expertise to bear on the issue has to be welcome. But the danger is that, in pursuing some ideal of scientific independence, political issues get disguised as technical matters.”
Shadow science advisors are simply experts with policy preferences and political agendas who have chosen to self-organize in an effort to influence policy, based on their authority and expertise. That is democracy in action.
The approach of the Dutch “Red Team” offers a notable contrast in approach and self-description to the U.K. Independent SAGE. They explain why they self-organized in terms of policy differences and not scientific authority:
In a complex crisis it is common and necessary to appoint a red team. To avoid tunnel vision and blind spots, a red team contradicts the blue team. The government has decided not to organize a protest itself. Red Team C19NL is a voluntary and unofficial group that offers noncommittal opposition and has no specific status.
Earlier this year, the Red Team pulled back its public activities, explaining that they feared that they work might contribute to mounting unrest in the Netherlands among those opposing the government’s COVID-19 response (English translation via Google):
We realize that the cabinet is in charge and that it is accountable for this to parliament. It is up to them who asks for advice and who wants to listen to it. Because we find that - at the moment - the cabinet has opted for mitigation, it has no point in repeating our previous advice. Then it becomes nagging, whining or activism. Then it contributes to the unrest and polarization, and that is not in line with our mission to be constructively critical. What are we still doing? Red Team continues to function, but just like the past few months on the background.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of expertise in dealing with crisis. It has also shown that connecting expertise and policy is complex, contextual and contested. A key feature of the landscape of expertise is shadow science advice. We have seen that there are better (e.g., more constructive) and worse (e.g., delegitimizing) ways to perform shadow science advice.
As we distill lessons of the pandemic, a priority should be the developing shared understandings and expectations for how we experts can well serve democratic practice and avoid contributing to pathological policy outcomes. A good way to do this will be to open up shadow science advice for debate and discussion, because it is here to stay.