When Did Scientists Turn Into Lobbyists?

24 December 2020  /  Updated 7 March 2021

An analysis of the March 14th ‘Open Letter’ from UK scientists calling on the Government “to take stronger measures of social distancing” (i.e. Lockdown).

Among various news outlets, the Guardian rapidly publicised the open letter by a group of “scientists” calling for a lockdown in an article on the March 14th.

245 UK scientists including those from Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Sanger Institute, and the Francis Crick Institute, had signed; Including Professors, Lecturers and Researchers in the fields of Immunology, Biology, Medicine and Complex Systems.

The resulting media frenzy, together with Imperial Colleges computer model predictions, appeared to have the desired effect of causing a Government U-turn and the first of many lockdowns.

The letter appears to have originated from the School of Mathematical Sciences, Queen Mary College London, and is posted on the Queen Mary server.

On closer inspection the first 245 UK signatories are made up of the following:

54 (22%) from Queen Mary (of which 42 are from the School of Mathematical Sciences including the first nine signatories)*

  • 41 from Cambridge University
  • 22 from Imperial College
  • 8 from the Sanger Institute
  • 4 from Oxford University
  • 2 from LSHTM (neither is a medical doctor. one is also a honorary Research Associate at Imperial)
  • 1 from Francis Crick Institute (Theoretical Physics of Biology Lab)

The remaining 122 are from a wide range of other institutions, including: The University of Greenwich; UCL; CUL; Cardiff Uni; Uni of Exeter; Kings College; Uni of Strathclyde; Heriot-Watt Uni; Uni of Warwick; Coventry Uni; Brunel Uni; Swansea Uni; Nokia Bell Labs; Uni of Liverpool; Uni of Nottingham; Uni of Sussex; Uni of East Anglia; Uni of Manchester; Lancaster Uni Management School; Uni of Southampton; Uni of Lincoln; Bournemouth Uni; Uni of Birmingham; Uni of Bristol; Uni of Sheffield; Durham Uni; Uni of York; Uni of Bath; The Natural History Museum; Uni of Dundee; Uni of Leeds; Uni of Edinburgh; Uni of Westminster; Uni of St Andrews; Sheffield Halam Uni.

56 Are students, either MSc or PhD

None of the first 245 signatories are Medical Doctors. Most are various types of mathematicians, physicists (physics), computer scientists, engineers, or from other non biological science fields.

Are these signatories experts in the transmission of infectious diseases? A good test is to ask yourself if you would seek their help and advice if you had, or suspected you had, an infectious disease and were worried about passing it onto friends and family. From the above analysis, I suspect the answer is no.

Let us be clear. Each person has signed in their professional capacity employed within the indicated academic institutions, despite apparently not having the expertise to make a judgement and therefore contrary to the principles of scientific objectivity:

scientists themselves—are not, or should not be, influenced by particular perspectives, value judgments, community bias or personal interests, to name a few relevant factors. Objectivity is often considered to be an ideal for scientific inquiry, a good reason for valuing scientific knowledge, and the basis of the authority of science in society.

But how can science have any authority in society when some, perhaps misguided scientists openly flout their own guiding principles and become lobbyists?

Is a pattern emerging that helps explain why we have ended up where we are at the end of 2020? Has the distinction between ‘scientist’ and ‘politician’ become blurred? In this new age of covert lobbying, science, it would appear, is on a very slippery slope.

*It is worth noting that, the 5th signatory, Jamie Griffin works within the School of Mathematical Sciences, Queen Mary, but previously worked at Imperial College with Neil Ferguson and at the last count had co-authored at least 13 science publications with Professor Ferguson (11 between 2009-2016, and two in 2020). Which begs the question: who really orchestrated this open letter?

The author is a scientist academic who wishes to remain anonymous.