A deeply felt, highly fraught debate about life, death and pathogens. Uncertainty, complexity and controversy over an infection that’s difficult to find, follow, understand, or decide what to do about. Backstage policy tensions spilling into public spats between scientists, with politicians, activists and celebrities chipping in.
Conspiracy theories. Fear and anger about who gets infected, who gets sick, who is protected and who dies. Regular invocations of ‘The Science’ to support contradictory, changing policies. Blame shifting. What a mess.
All the above have been writ distressingly large as Britain, reluctantly and then in a flat panic, has faced the global coronavirus pandemic. However, the same applies to the UK’s near 50-year history of debate over managing bovine tuberculosis, and whether it should be controlled by culling badgers.
Having just written a book on the subject, I can’t help but see many parallels between the UK’s experiences with bovine TB and coronavirus. But here I want to concentrate on a critical problem underlying many controversies that draw in science, policy and the public—the idea of The Big Book of Science.
In media coverage, popular culture and political rhetoric, science is often implicitly ‘The Science’: a monolith of immutable, authoritative facts, discovered and written by heroic, lone geniuses. Some scientists are deeply invested in this image, and work hard to build it, but many others don’t recognise or like it one bit. It’s also vulnerable when real people don’t live up to the myth.
Working scientists, and the researchers who study them, know that science in practice is a messy process of observation, investigation, theorising, and constant, passionate argument. It involves interactions between research groups, across multiple disciplines, all with different ways of working.
What scientists know does settle into reliable knowledge—that’s why science is needed. But this is always under revision. The name of the game is to make sense of uncertainty.
So what happens when science in practice becomes visible in public? This happens most obviously during public controversies and policy advisory processes, but preprint archives, open science movements, social media and rolling news are all making science in practice increasingly visible.
The history of bovine TB exposes long-term dysfunctions in relations between science, policy and the media in the UK. For example, politicians, policymakers and journalists reacted with anger and confusion when a randomised badger culling trial generated new questions and uncertainties rather than providing the answers they wanted.
Politicians and campaigners, for and against culling, have strategically framed specific experts or evidence as ‘The Science’ to support their agendas. The most spectacular example saw two completely contradictory expert reports on the culling trial in the same year, but this still happens whenever new research papers on culling appear.
In turn, some scientists have jostled for influence, inflated expectations about The Science, or naively assumed that their particular advice should automatically shape policy, irrespective of its plausibility or conflicts with other experts. Around bovine TB, these mismatches have created a repeating cycle of raised and broken expectations, which has corroded trust, perpetuated policy failure and driven polarisation of the controversy.