Published by Nature, 24 December 2022

Authors: Hannah Baker (EUP*), Shauna Concannon (EUP), Matthias Meller, Katie Cohen (EUP), Alice Millington, Samuel Ward & Emily So (EUP)

* Expertise Under Pressure project

Science advice for governments attracted great scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the public spotlight on institutions and individual experts—putting science advice on the ‘Grand Stage’. A review of the academic literature identified transparency, a plurality of expertise, the science and policy ‘boundary’, and consensus whilst addressing uncertainty as key themes. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been the primary provider of coordinated scientific and technical advice to the UK Government during emergencies since 2009. Using the first 89 of SAGE’s meeting minutes (study period: 22 January 2020–13 May 2021), the ‘metadata’ and linguistic choices are analysed to identify how SAGE’s role and protocols are communicated. This includes understanding which experts were regularly taking part in discussions, the role of scientific experts in the science advisory system and their influence on policy choices, and the degree of consensus and uncertainty within this group of experts—all of which relate to the degree of transparency with the public. In addition, a temporal analysis examines how these practices, such as linguistically marking uncertainty, developed over the period studied. Linguistic markers indexing certainty and uncertainty increased, demonstrating a commitment to precise and accurate communication of the science, including ambiguities and the unknown. However, self-references to SAGE decreased over the period studied. The study highlights how linguistic analysis can be a useful approach for developing an understanding of science communication practices and scientific ambiguity. By considering how SAGE presents to those outside the process, the research calls attention to what remains ‘behind the scenes’ and consequently limits the public’s understanding of SAGE’s role in the COVID-19 response.


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