“People in this country have had enough of experts”. Michael Gove famously said in the run up to the Brexit referendum.
This soundbite captured a fundamental challenge in our democracy, about who should trust whom, and why, and who should have the power to make changes to people’s lives. It gave voice to a growing discomfort that self-appointed experts thought they knew better than the rest of the country, but actually they didn’t.
The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the magnificence of the science, research and expertise in the UK which for too long has been overlooked. Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty have become poster boys for a lifetime of toiling in labs to understand the world better, for statistical analysis as a route to social progress, and for balance, reason and careful judgement.
So this crisis has given us an opportunity to reassert that expertise is a good thing, and to make the case that Britain should seek to strengthen its expertise economy. To do that, we have two tasks. First, to make the case for experts and the value of expertise, reframing its value as moving society forward, not just something that’s good for the economy. Second, to preserve but reform the institutions – primarily universities – that underpin it.
What do we mean by expertise?
“Expertise” is the idea that by virtue of better education, research, dedication, experience and/or ability, a person or people should be granted more power or authority over other people’s lives whether by choice or otherwise.
For example, if you were having a brain tumour removed, you’d want to be treated by an expert – someone who had studied how to remove brain tumours, benefited from years of painstaking research into the field, and had a good track record of doing them herself. Similarly in public life, the governor of the Bank of England is a well-respected economist; the president of the supreme court is an eminent lawyer; the chief inspector of Ofsted is a top notch educationalist.
The UK has a huge infrastructure that underpins such expertise. Our university system is world-leading, with four universities in the global top ten, developing mind bogglingly cutting edge research from graphene to neuromorphic computing. This is thanks to sustained investment over the decades as well as the dedication of thousands of researchers, scientists and officials, people who beaver away in search of facts or ideas to solve the world’s problems.
Why, then, has the very concept of expertise had a rough ride over the last ten years? Michael Gove didn’t create the issue, he merely named it.
First, it is becoming more common not to listen to “them” – something that goes beyond a healthy disrespect for authority. Driven by crises in politics, banking, journalism, this scepticism affects everyone with power, whether gained democratically or by virtue of expertise.
It is particularly apparent in attitudes towards health: witness “anti vaxxers” who won’t vaccinate their children because of repeatedly scientifically disproven theories. There has been a rise in “alternative therapies” for which there is no (or worse, negative) evidence, homeopathy being chief amongst them.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop enterprise is all the more pernicious for using celebrity to promote it. And the heckler who told the renowned economist Anon Memond that “that’s your bloody GDP. It’s not ours” shows the disconnect between people and the so-called experts.
Second, the advent of “fake news” means that people don’t trust what they read in the papers or online; 52 per cent of people worry that the media they consume contains untrustworthy information. This makes the job of communicating information and facts to the general public – who increasingly get their news on social media – more challenging.
Third, there is a polarisation in national debate and discourse. In our increasingly quick-fix, celebrity-idolising, shouty culture, the idea of listening to quiet, bespectacled people who spend their lives painstakingly reviewing papers and rigorously analysing data seems discordant.
Gwyneth Paltrow is more easily accessible than the guy who wrote “Modeling the impact on virus transmission of Wolbachia-mediated blocking of dengue virus infection of Aedes aegypti”. But that doesn’t make her more right. Further, an interviewee who says she might not know the answer or might have changed her mind (based on further evidence) or who qualifies her judgements does not often make for blockbuster TV.
Expertise is back in fashion
Coronavirus has potentially changed the game in two ways. First, similar to the response to counter terrorism after 9/11 and 7/7, the pandemic has reminded us to value something we took for granted previously: science, expertise and fact. The pandemic has reminded us of the wonderful science being done in the UK. The scientists, medics and experts have brought the role of scientists back to public consciousness.
Many scientists, researchers and officials – like many others across the UK – are contributing hugely to the national effort. They are working long hours, leaving their loved ones to work in labs, and dedicating themselves to modelling, experimenting, testing, analysing and thinking.
The pandemic has also revealed that these people, and their underpinning support – the labs, the existing evidence base, the journals that publish them, the universities, the charities, the funders – are part of our critical national infrastructure. Without them, or with weaker ones, we simply wouldn’t be able to respond to a pandemic. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
Second, coronavirus has changed the game for universities. Universities UK argues the sector will lose £800m this year, and up to £7bn in international student fees next year. There are already warnings that universities will go bankrupt and the vice chancellor of Manchester has warned of a £270m funding gap with associated job losses. All this has simply exposed what sector observers already knew: the funding model for universities, which makes up for underfunding research by cross-subsidising it via fees (often from international students, often from humanities based subjects), is utterly unsustainable.
And it compounds challenges which universities already faced: reductions in research funding following the UK’s exit from the EU, increased competition for international students and top talent from overseas (made worse by Brexit), student pressure over the value of money of a degree for which they now pay £29k and pay off at an interest rate up to three times a mortgage, and, competition from alternative providers and delivery models.
Winning the argument for the expertise economy
To secure a society in which expertise is valued and supported, we must act on multiple levels: first to win the public argument for expertise, science and scientific progress. Once that argument is secure we can get into the detail of how to protect the infrastructure that supports it.
The argument for the expertise economy in recent years has been financial. I’ve argued elsewhere, there was a political consensus that the “race to the top” (Gordon Brown) and the “global race” (George Osborne) are best supported by investment in science and innovation. They are good, rational arguments, but they speak to policy wonks who like growing GDP, productivity, and higher-level skills.
The pandemic gives us an opportunity to reframe the argument for experts. Universities and the wider “expert” community should make the case that scientific research, analysis, evidence and expertise are essential to keeping us safe, healthy and society functioning as we want it.
Without it, we can’t figure out how to respond to pandemics, invent apps to deliver food to our grans, find a cure for disease (coronavirus or cancer) or train the doctors, nurses and data analysts of the future. The more expertise we have, the better decisions we are likely to make, whether individually or collectively, in all spheres of life.
We should go further and appeal to a very human desire to push the boundaries of knowledge: to go a bit further than anyone has ever gone before. This argument would be pushing at an open door for as long as Dominic Cummings wields power in Downing Street.
For those who have an expansive, outward looking political view, the better our research and expertise, the more we can collaborate to solve world problems of the sort George Graham touches on in his piece. For those who have a more closed view, the more we exit global institutions, the more important having our own research and expertise becomes.
A note of caution. We must protect the role of science. It is no wonder the daily press conference often sees politicians flanked by the chief medical officer and/or the chief scientific adviser: polling by Ipsos shows that public trust in both medics and scientists far exceeds that of politicians.
However, the narrative about “following the science” is misleading: the big decisions are unquestionably political. How do we balance deaths vs the economy? How do we balance the needs of different age groups? How do we protect frontline workers vs others? These are unenviable decisions to have to make, and the only people who should make them are democratically elected. As Chris Tyler argues in the Conversation, the science informs the policy, not the other way around.
Donald Trump’s forays into science caricature why politicians shouldn’t influence it, and the outrage over Dominic Cummings’ attendance at SAGE shows that (perceived) political interference into scientific and / or technical information has the potential to damage the reputation of the experts as well as the politicians. This process must be transparent and clear.
Perhaps more importantly, scientists must better explain the scientific process. Concepts like “good evidence”, uncertainty and risk should be better understood. In an increasingly polarised world, we must fight harder for the right to take careful judgements, ask for more evidence, and admit uncertainty.
Reforming the engine of the expertise economy
Universities are under serious pressure. The government should bail them out. But, as Andy Westwood argues, it should do so in a way that accelerates the future of the sector it wants to see.
The problem is that the government currently doesn’t have a view of its ambition for the future of the sector. Policy for universities is split between two departments. The Department for Education sees universities as “big school” which means it is focused on admissions into elite universities (as ever), the value for money of a university degree, and freedom of speech. BEIS technically has shared responsibility but has less policy activity. Regulation and funding are fragmented.
Instead, we need a coherent, singular strategy for universities that sees them support our wider societal goals. First, they must deliver the research, innovation and science to push the limits of our knowledge, and use this to contribute to both public debate and our economy. Second, they must teach people (of all ages, in different kinds of ways), to further their skills and enable them to live the lives they want to. Third, they must support the levelling up agenda, driving economic growth and their local economies.
But not every institution must do all three, and nor all in the same ways. The government must create the incentives in the funding mechanisms to enable (indeed, encourage) different types of institutions to thrive in different ways without the complex cross subsidies. This will inevitably mean some tough choices for individual institutions: some courses must stop, some research must stop, some institutions must close or merge.
Experts have been much maligned in recent years. But the pandemic has revealed their worth. We repay them by making the case for valuing expertise, and pushing a policy agenda to protect through reform of the institutions that underpin it.
Our Other National Debt brings together perspectives on how to ensure a just and inclusive recovery from Covid-19.