Edd McCracken, Head of News, examines how our researchers have been using their expertise to provide insight on the pandemic.
Among the many things that the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have brought is a certain metronomic quality to life. For months, the daily rhythm of caring, working, Zooming, eating and sleeping has gone unchanged. The easing of restrictions is adding more interesting and varied beats, but one daily occurrence remains the same.
Turn on your TV, tune into a radio station, open a newspaper or read an article online, and chances are there will be a University of Edinburgh expert providing some insight into the coronavirus outbreak.
Since the first major reports of the virus in Wuhan, China in January 2020, scores of our researchers have been called upon to help us make sense of a world that has been turned upside down.
Among many other things, they have explained the biology of the virus, the efficacy of public health measures, the impact on refugees and minority groups, the need for green space and exercise in lockdown, the political fallouts, and the economic havoc.
This commentary and insight has led to tens of thousands of appearances in the world’s media, from major players such as the New York Times, the BBC and Al Jazeera to smaller, regional media outlets in the likes of Namibia and Bolivia.
Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the Usher Institute, is one of the University’s most prominent experts. She is a regular feature on everything from Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to giving evidence in front of Parliamentary select committees.
For her, the reason why she and colleagues continue to try and make their expertise heard amid the din of the pandemic is simple.
“Covid-19 is touching everyone’s life in one way or the other,” she says. “The public want clear, data-driven information to help them make sense of this crisis and to help understand the new studies and data that come to light. Experts play a hugely important role in communicating with the public so that they can understand better the situation and the role scientific advice plays in government policy.”
Other colleagues pick up this theme. They describe speaking to the media during such critical times – to make the public aware of what we do and do not know – as an obligation.
“Academics have often studied the same or similar phenomena before, which can help with interpreting or making recommendations during crises,” says Dr Claudia Pagliari, senior researcher from the Usher Institute, specialising in eHealth. She has been sharing her insights on the wearing of face masks and contract tracing apps.
“Rather than remaining within our ivory towers trying to chase the next paper or research grant, crises like Covid-19 call for us to reach out and be engaged in the public discourse, to work with policymakers and to offer our own views in open forums.
“I’ve been encouraged by the willingness of experts to work together and share their ideas during this crisis and hope it continues, to change the research culture from ‘me’ to ‘us’. We are public servants, after all.”
Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease, agrees. “As experts in infectious diseases and public health, we can provide answers to some of those questions,” she says. “We can explain – in accessible language – what the virus is, how it works, how our bodies respond, how we might ameliorate the damage, and how to analyse the wealth of data that is emerging.”
There are several reasons why Nasar Meer, Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship, feels it is important for academics to step up during the pandemic.
“Publicly funded research comes with the obligation to make knowledge public, and this is true of normal times as well as those of crisis,” he says.
Professor Meer has written and spoken about the impact that Covid-19 is having on vulnerable populations in refugee camps and among ethnic minority groups in the UK. He argues that academics need to be publically engaged to overcome systemic hierarchies and to hold policy makers to account.
“There are clear errors and oversights in the UK government’s understanding but also handling of the crisis, yet they have proceeded undeterred even when this has been pointed out to them,” he says. “So it is important for researchers to provide a corrective as a matter of record but also as a basis of the possible strategy to do things better.”
To do this, however, is not easy. The path to steering the debate in the media, swaying politicians, and informing the public discourse is littered with many obstacles. Dr Pagliari says “a degree of bravery” is needed.
For Linda Bauld, the Bruce and John Usher Professor of Public Health at the Usher Institute, the initial barrier was working out how best to apply her expertise in behavioural science to the pandemic.
“Early on in the current crisis I turned down a number of media requests because infectious disease is not my area of expertise,” she says. “I didn’t think I was qualified to comment. But then there were more requests and I could see that there were questions the media and the public were asking that were really about human behaviour, about how evidence informs policy (or doesn’t) and about wider public health. These are all things I do study. So I started to agree to requests and I don’t regret that now.”
There are other, nastier hurdles to overcome, she adds.
“Of course there are the unpleasant emails and social media comments but I am used to these over many years from working on other controversial topics. So I try to ignore them, although that’s not always easy.”
Given the sometimes overwhelming demand for their time and knowledge from journalists and politicians, do our academics believe that society’s relationship with experts will have changed once we fully emerge from the Covid-19 crisis?
Professor Rowland Kao, Chair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at the Roslin Institute, has found the past several months encouraging.
“It’s the first time in my lifetime that I’ve seen the interest in science be so high and for such a prolonged period,” he says. “This will undoubtedly fade, but it is heartening to know that, in times of uncertainty, there are still so many people who look to the science to help to provide answers. We aren’t always able to give these of course, but what we can do is provide an understanding of the ‘why’ of COVID-19, and not just the ‘what’.”
Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, thinks this is more of an isolated incident. “During this crisis the public debate and the scientific debate have proceeded in parallel and have sometimes even become entwined,” he says. “That’s unusual and reflects both the huge public interest and the fact that we are dealing with a new virus and are learning all the time. As a consequence, society has had a chance to watch science in action, at breakneck speed, in a way that may never happen again.”
Professor Bauld is less sure that academia will have a permanent seat at the top table.
“I’m sceptical about that,” she says. “Sometimes we think things we experience now – even the global crisis we are currently living through – will change things forever. But they don’t necessarily. My own view is that society’s relationship with experts waxes and wanes and I suspect that will always be the case depending on the issues involved, how the media operates, and national and political contexts.”
Given the successes and trials of engaging the media, politicians and public this year, our experts have advice for colleagues who may wish to follow them.
“Don’t be afraid to engage, starting with social media, but try to be thoughtful, informed and constructive,” says Dr Pagilari. “Journalists want to work with you and members of the public want to hear from you. Also remember that it is very rare for one academic to make change happen. This nearly always happens as part of wider networks of expertise and it it wise to be humble, collaborative and open to others’ ideas.”
Professor Bauld admits that doing media work isn’t for everyone, but points to fundamental skills that all researchers have – reading new papers, scrutinising study designs, interpreting data – that make them well suited to it.
“But if academics do decide to comment in the media, it’s worth considering what you are comfortable with,” she says. “Some people prefer written comments as you can control those more than phone calls with journalists, for example. If you are happy with TV and radio then I think training and practice and stamina are needed. It’s worth knowing yourself and when you are at your best. I’ve done too many late night interviews I regret, but I’m usually wide awake first thing in the morning. So now I’ll say yes to that 6am radio slot but no to that 11pm TV request. Establishing boundaries is important.”
She also adds that more diverse voices are needed. “Not just more women, but people from a range of backgrounds.”
For Professor Meer, his advice displays a value much prized when dealing with the media: brevity.
He says: “Be clear but not simplistic, use evidence but don’t be restricted to it, and take a critical eye to what is said and done.”