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expert reaction to Prof Neil Ferguson resigning from SAGE

Prof Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, has resigned from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

 

Prof Fiona Watt, Executive Chair, Medical Research Council (MRC), said:

“Neil Ferguson acted swiftly and, in my opinion, appropriately in stepping back from SAGE. Nevertheless, the research of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, which he leads, is not compromised. ‘GIDA’, as it is affectionately known, is powered by several outstanding senior scientists, including Neil. Their contributions to modelling the COVID-19 pandemic remain of paramount importance in the UK and round the world.”

 

Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive, British Science Association, said:

“Scientists know that Prof Ferguson’s resignation from the SAGE committee won’t affect the quality of his research OR the government’s access to that research. But people who don’t work in science may not realise that – and may be concerned about the adverse effects of Ferguson’s decision.

“Science is often stereotyped as the secretive work of a lone genius instead of a team effort that is pored over by other teams of people. To bolster the already falling levels of public trust in science, we need more transparency and communication about the way that science actually works – and how it is used to inform (but not to dictate) government policy.”

 

Prof Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said*:

“I don’t honestly think that Prof Ferguson’s resignation from SAGE will have any material impact on the kind of advice that the government has been receiving. I have a huge respect for Prof Ferguson as a scientist in his field as he’s made important contributions, but it’s critical I think to understand that we are in an era of team science. Prof Ferguson is an individual – he’s the leader of a team, but it’s the team as a whole who will, I am sure, continue to provide valuable input to SAGE.

“Regarding his decision, I think that for someone with the kind of profile that Prof Ferguson currently has, and particularly the influence that he’s had over decisions about lockdown, this was an unfortunate episode. I think he made a mistake and I think he’s probably done the right thing by resigning. But I really would emphasise, I don’t see this having any material impact on the ongoing scientific input to the government’s decision making.

“In some ways, this incident is a consequence of scientists having a higher profile and with that attracting more public gaze and scrutiny. This type of thing goes with the territory that scientists are currently in – we the scientific community all need to understand that and I’m sure we’ll all reflect on it.”

 

Prof John Iredale, Pro Vice Chancellor Health and Life Sciences, University of Bristol, said:

“Whilst it is a pity that Prof Ferguson’s lapse in judgement has meant he must step down from SAGE, the importance of his group’s science and modelling and those of other UK groups should be in no way impugned. A scientifically robust approach drawing on the work of key groups should remain central to the UKs response to the pandemic.”

 

Prof Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology in the Dept of Medical Statistics, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“It is sad that Professor Ferguson made such an error of judgement in relation to his own behaviour. We have seen a similar inconsistency between public advice and private behaviour in Scotland recently. It is right that all of us should show consistency in our behaviour, but one suspects that the media delight in pointing the finger in some circumstances but happily ignore other inconsistencies.

“The modelling team at Imperial College is exactly that – a team. The work will continue and there is no reason to doubt the methods and results because one person’s behaviour is not at the high standard expected. The modelling work is not just done by Professor Ferguson, but by his whole team and by other teams also represented at SAGE. The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) has membership from a number of individuals representing a number of groups and their advice as a whole feeds into SAGE and this advice will continue to be able to be transmitted just as effectively even if Professor Ferguson is not there.

“We are all vulnerable to inconsistencies in our lives and clearly some of these have a large impact when we are in the public eye, but self-righteousness, especially if used to attempt to undermine scientific method and results, is not a good path to follow.”

 

Prof Rowland Kao, Sir Timothy O’Shea Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science, University of Edinburgh, said:

“This story regarding Prof Ferguson’s personal life would have no interest except due to his position as a prominent scientist who has been an important advisor in the design of COVID-19 control policies and the inconsistency between his actions and official policy. The story is not, however, about the underlying science itself. In this case, the imposition of lockdown has been broadly supported by the scientific community, though with inevitable variation and with some cases where different approaches have been used.

“This incident does, however, highlight the importance of transparency, as the public need to have confidence in that broad-based support for the advice that was used to support decision-making. This will be especially important in the current phase where we are anticipating easing lockdown, and where decisions will inevitably be even more highly scrutinised.”

 

Prof James Naismith FRS FRSE FMedSci, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and University of Oxford, said:

“With the COVID-19 epidemic, the government did not have the luxury to wait then apply perfect 20/20 hindsight. In every ten day period, the number of viral infections was growing by a factor of ten. Quite rightly, Government took evidence and advice from the best epidemiological modelling groups available to it – I emphasise groups plural.

“Models are how science makes predictions about the future. Science does not operate on the say so of scientists – “Take no one’s word for it” is our oldest motto. A key principle of science is that scientists share how they do their experiments as well as the results of them, so that other scientists can do better next time.

“The modelling work from Professor Ferguson’s lab is the work of many hands – it is scrutinised and used by other scientists around the world (who are also experts in modelling). The personal life of Professor Ferguson is not a factor in the modelling studies his group carry out and does not undermine the utility of the work.

“The government’s need for modelling based insights is unchanged. I am sure Professor Ferguson’s group and other modelling groups will continue to produce incredibly valuable work. As Professor Ferguson has stepped down from SAGE, other experts will now analyse the insights from multiple groups in order to prepare advice to Government.”

 

Prof Liam Smeeth, Head of the Department of Non-Communicable Disease, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said:

“I don’t know Prof Ferguson personally and I don’t know the exact details of what has occurred, but I am sure he has been working under enormous stress. It sounds like he made an error in judgement and I entirely respect whatever course of action he has chosen to take.

“Hilariously, when I first heard reports, I misheard and thought that he had been visited by his “mother” rather than his “lover”. I wonder whether, if it had been his mother, the story would even have got into the papers. A part of me suspects that it wouldn’t.

“I feel it is extremely important to make the point that Prof Ferguson has made a huge contribution worldwide to the efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. I am certain that his group at Imperial – with leadership and input from Prof Ferguson – will continue to make a major contribution to UK and global efforts.”

 

 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/covid-19

 

*Quote transcribed from Robert’s interview on the Today Programme this morning

 

Declared interests

Prof Stephen Evans: “I am funded (1 day/week) by LSHTM. They get funding from various companies, including Astra Zeneca and GSK but I am not funded by them, I have no involvement in obtaining funding from them and I am not an investigator, or receive any grants obtained from them.  I am the statistician to the “meta-Data Safety and Monitoring Board” for CEPI. LSHTM have a mathematical modelling team which is represented by several people at both SPI-M and SAGE, but I am not a part of any of those groups.”

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