The government has rushed out a request to universities to help expand the pool of scientific experts who are advising ministers during the coronavirus crisis, following concerns about the lack of expertise in some areas.
Researchers at British universities received requests on Wednesday morning to join the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) international and behavioural teams and were asked to declare their interest by the end of Thursday.
A notice sent to academics said the Government Office for Science was playing a central role in the UK’s response to the epidemic through Sage, the group led by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and that “they are now looking for additional expert support”.
The move comes amid intense scrutiny of the group, whose membership is traditionally kept secret until the emergency being worked on has passed. Since the Guardian revealed the names of two dozen Sage participants last week, critics have raised concerns about the apparent lack of expertise in a number of areas, notably frontline public health epidemiologists, emergency response specialists and logisticians.
The membership of Sage has been thrust into the spotlight amid concerns that ministers have failed in key areas of Britain’s response to coronavirus, from acting too slowly, lagging behind on testing, and having insufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, all while insisting they were following “the best science”.
The presence at Sage meetings of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief political adviser, has fuelled further questions about the scientific advice No 10 is receiving. Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, warned that Cummings’s participation in the meetings was problematic as he would relay his interpretation of the discussions directly to Boris Johnson.
On Monday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, complained of a “deficiency” in the system for providing scientific advice, saying she was unhappy that the chief scientist for the Scottish government did not have full participation in Sage meetings.
Vallance said earlier this week the Sage advisers and those on its subgroups would be named “shortly” unless individuals objected. The documents Sage has reviewed during its meetings will also be published as soon as permission from the relevant authors had been granted, he added.
Academics will join the advisory groups for an initial three-month secondment and spend their time supporting expert meetings, tracking and summarising key research and scientific developments, and liaising with a wide range of experts to understand the latest picture on the virus.
One advert calls for researchers who will be embedded in the international group of Sage’s Covid-19 response team. The advert casts a wide net, seeking experts in global public health, health systems, epidemiology, infectious diseases, emerging diseases, and social or behavioural sciences.
The second advert calls for experts to join the scientific pandemic influenza group on behaviours, or SPI-B, a subgroup of the Sage Covid-19 response team. The specialisms being sought are behavioural psychology, health psychology, behaviour change and behavioural economic. Duties will range from turning the group’s discussions into consensus statements and performing research, for example, on public perceptions and likely responses to policy decisions, according to the advert.