Jeremy Farrar explains why humanity may simply have to learn to live with Covid-19, why he wishes there were *more* government advisers in scientific meetings—and why he thinks it is still too early to reopen schoolsby Alan Rusbridger / May 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
It feels as if the whole of Jeremy Farrar’s life has been a preparation for this crisis. A leading epidemiologist, he has been thinking about diseases, viruses and pandemics for most of his career. He is director of the Wellcome Trust, which funds a huge amount of scientific research. And now he sits on the government’s Sage group of scientists offering advice (not always taken) on how to navigate the unprecedented crisis we currently face.
I sat down with Farrar—at either end of a Zoom connection—on Friday night to discuss all this, in the company of Lady Margaret Hall students, tutors and alumni. He talked frankly about how science and politics interact. About the billions needed to find medical solutions. About how the government missed the early opportunities to get ahead of the pandemic. And about whether or not schools should be re-opening.
Alan Rusbridger (AR): What is the relationship between science and policy? What do you think science is able to do in a crisis like this, and what are the limitations?
Jeremy Farrar (JF): When you’re dealing with events like now, one of the greatest challenges is you’re just dealing with total uncertainty. The uncertainty is obviously greater at the start and you hope—you hope—gets less as you go forward. On a personal level, I’ve actually always really enjoyed working in uncertainty because I think it’s a really interesting place to be, but it does not suit everybody.
Then when you come to put science and uncertainty with policy, you actually have to make decisions. That is a very, almost unholy alliance in some ways, because you can’t just base policy on hard science, particularly when that science is uncertain. Yet you can’t wait until the science is certain just to make policy. In that grey zone between the unholy alliance, you’ve got some really tough things to do.
Seeing how advice is either taken or not and then trying to inform policy, that’s a complex and difficult relationship. Which if I’m honest about, makes you feel at times very, very uncomfortable.
AR: What about the communication of the science? You’re having conversations with advisers and politicians, but then there’s a huge piece of this, which is trying to talk about very complex science in easily understood terms. Lots of people feel really…