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Meet the visiting researcher: Matthias Meller 740 740 Hannah Baker

Meet the visiting researcher: Matthias Meller

We are delighted to welcome Matthias Meller, Visiting student/researcher on the Expertise Under Pressure project (EuP), and asked about his hopes for his stay at the project. ​

Matthias is a Master’s candidate for the ‘Responsibility in Science, Engineering and Technology’ programme at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany. He was Policy Intern at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) in Easter Term 2021 and worked as a Policy Analyst intern at a German State Ministry for Digital Affairs. Before his graduate studies, Matthias was Entrepreneur in Residence at a financial technology start-up. Matthias holds a BA in Philosophy & Economics, having studied in Germany, Canada, and Italy, and was a fellow of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation.

Q: Matthias, which aspect of Expertise Under Pressure do you find most exciting?

I was particularly drawn by understanding more closely what makes expertise authoritative. During my time in the start-up ​industry, I found it fascinating to observe the weight that venture capitalists’ judgment carried for the trajectory of single companies and even ecosystems. This already hints that expertise does not need to come in strictly academic terms. The COVID-19 pandemic induced a change to our understanding of the role of experts in public. They always have and increasingly been present; however, now, their judgement has been sought to guide us through the uncertainties of everyday life and social order day-to-day (and sometimes even less than that). The pressing demand for immediate expert judgement in this emergency foregrounds what may make expertise authoritative and which claims are aimed to support such authority.

Q: How does your own area of interest relate to the project’s primary research questions?

While at CSaP, I worked alongside Hannah Baker and Emily So from the EuP project, Shauna Concannon from the Giving Voice for Digital Democracies project (also at CRASSH) and other CSaP interns on how the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) provided advice to government during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research matured into a study of the evolving transparency and advice process, principally evidenced through the official minutes of SAGE meetings. I continued to be involved in the project beyond the internship and co-authored a paper we submitted at the end of 2021. My specific contributions included data acquisition and analysis, data visualisation and bringing in theory from my Science and Technology Studies (STS) background.

Additionally, for my graduate thesis supervised by Makoto Takahashi (Senior Researcher at TUM, Fulbright-Lloyd’s Fellow at Harvard), I am researching the public communication of SAGE experts and members of the group ‘Independent SAGE’ on Twitter. Independent SAGE, founded by the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King, arose against calls for greater transparency of the scientific advisory process and has used the platform as a principal venue to engage with their audiences. Amid their early labelling as a ‘rival group’ to SAGE, I was intrigued to ask how Independent SAGE laid claims to expertise and authority and, judged by the extensive media coverage, continued to play a role in the public’s perception of the UK’s pandemic response until recently.

Q: What are your hopes for your stay at CRASSH?

Interdisciplinarity has been at the core of my academic education, yet, this project has allowed me to work alongside fantastic researchers on truly interdisciplinary and timely research, discovering computational social science methods along the way. I cherish the opportunity to meet so many faces I have seen and worked with only virtually now, finally in person. It is often the unintentional and undirected exchanges face-to-face that stipulate the most interesting and durable thoughts on how to make sense of social change.

During my visit, I hope to refine our research paper on SAGE during the COVID-19 pandemic for publication. Furthermore, the EuP team and I will jointly reflect on how the pressures on SAGE as the primary provider of scientific advice to government, including the emergence of Independent SAGE, may shape the public’s expectations in the UK of what makes expertise authoritative and credible in the future.



Expert Bites with Arsenii Khitrov 592 592 Federico Brandmayr

Expert Bites with Arsenii Khitrov

21 November 2020

A sociologist and philosopher of wide-ranging interests, Arsenii Khitrov is currently writing up his doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge on how Hollywood politically-themed television series are made and what role political and social experts play in their production. He has recently published a brilliant article in which he reconstructs the relationships of conflict, competition and collaboration between the film industry, state agencies, research organisations, social movements, and independent experts. We had the chance to meet Arsenii in person before the coronavirus pandemic started and asked him a few questions about what is distinctive about being an expert for the film industry.

Considering your research, what makes a good expert? 

In the domain I study, which is the field of television production in America today, I focus on a very particular type of expertise. Within this project, I call ‘experts’ the people who come to the entertainment industry from the outside and bring their knowledge to the writers, producers, and actors. These ‘experts’ most commonly come from the government, social movements, universities, think tanks, medial, media, military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities. Some of them represent these organisations and communities and lobby on their behalf, others are private expertise entrepreneurs exchanging their experiences and knowledge for success in Hollywood.

In both cases, Hollywood professionals have the power to define the value of these experts, and the industry defines their value depending on how much they can offer in terms of what Hollywood specifically needs. Experts’ formal qualifications, past and present affiliations, access, and experiences are important, but what is more important is how well they can recognise a particular set of expectations and dispositions that Hollywood professionals share, which I call the ‘Hollywood habitus’, as well as how well they can perform it. In other words, good experts are the experts that Hollywood professionals see as good, or, in other words, whoever plays the Hollywood game well.

What are the pressures experts face in your field?

The main pressure experts experience in Hollywood are the explicit and tacit requirements, expectations, and hierarchies that define both the creative and the management sides of the production process. Television series in the USA are commonly written by a group of writers working on a very tight schedule. Shooting often starts when the writing is still taking place. Experts can be invited to writers’ rooms and on set, and what the writers and producers expect from them is to be as quick, open-minded, and inventive as possible. Hollywood professionals do not expect the experts to criticise what they write or shoot: they don’t want to hear that what they are doing is not possible or unrealistic. Rather, they want experts to ‘pitch solutions’, as many of my research participants told me. However realistic television makers want their products to be, if realism prevents them from creating a good drama, realism must go. If an expert is too insistent on just one version of realism, s/he must make way for a more creative expert.

Taking a step away from the specific case I am studying, I would consider the relationality of experts. By this, I mean the question of whether experts are not actually entities in themselves, but rather intermediaries between two spheres: the sphere that accumulates knowledge and the sphere that receives it. If this is indeed the case, then it is worth thinking about how much the intermediary position the expert occupies demands the expert to adapt to the requirements and expectations of expertise recipients. In other words, how much the type of knowledge experts can provide is defined not only by the knowledge they possess, but by the receivers’ expectations and the experts’ intermediary position.

Have you observed any significant changes occurring in recent times in the way experts operate?

I can answer this question in relation to the field I study. The biggest change that I know of in the way experts operate in Hollywood is that their work has become more institutionalised and routinised, especially when it comes to experts representing social movements. In the late 1960s, social movements gained momentum in relation to Hollywood. They bombarded Hollywood with criticism, boycotted films and television programmes, wrote letters and sent petitions to networks. They became a real force the industry had to reckon with, and the industry sought ways to lessen their pressure. Various intermediary institutions and mediating procedures started emerging in the 1970s and continue emerging today, and these incorporate social movements in the industry. One of the ways the pressure of social movements was channelled into less acute forms of power struggle was through the work of technical advisors and consultants specialising in pressing social and political issues. The way these experts work with and in Hollywood has become institutionalised and routinized, which slightly decreased the pressure of social movements on Hollywood and simultaneously made Hollywood more accessible to social movements.

Do you envision any changes in the role of experts in the future?

If I step away from my research project and speculate about the role of experts in Western societies at large, I would say that it is important to address what many have called the ‘crisis of expertise’, i.e. mistrust of experts and expertise from the side of some groups of the population, media outlets, and some public officials. If we look at the social world as an arena where various groups fight for resources and power, it is not surprising that someone is under attack, that someone is blamed for alleged troubles. This is simply how power struggles unfold: any method is acceptable, and if blaming experts works (i.e. if it mobilises political power), then why not take this route. Yet why does accusing experts help mobilise power?

Perhaps this is due to a unique breakthrough in the way information is performed, practiced, stored, and accessed, which brings four distinct processes together. First, the amount of information available in the world, scientific and otherwise, is increasing at a terribly fast pace. Second, experts have to increasingly specialise to be able to know at least something with certainty. Third, online search engines, databases, and online media make this plethora of information easily accessible to almost anyone for free. Fourth, unequally developed and unequally accessible educational systems help some adapt to these changes faster, while making others to lag behind. The way these four processes continue to unfold will define the role of experts.

Trusting the experts takes more than belief 600 396 Federico Brandmayr

Trusting the experts takes more than belief

Matt Bennett

As part of a series on expertise and COVID-19, the Expertise Under Pressure team asked Matt Bennett, currently a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, to write a piece based on his new article “Should I do as I’m told? Trust, Experts, and COVID-19” forthcoming in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.

Trusting the science

Radical public health responses to the pandemic around the world have asked us to make unprecedented changes to our daily lives. Social distancing measures require compliance with recommendations, instructions, and legal orders that come with undeniable sacrifices for almost all of us (though these sacrifices are far from equally distributed). These extreme public measures depend for their success on public trust.

Trust in these measures is both a necessary and desirable feature of almost all of the public health strategies currently in place. Necessary, because it seems fair to assume that such extreme measures cannot be effectively introduced, much less maintained, solely through policing or other forms of direct state coercion. These measures require a significant degree of voluntary compliance if they are to work. And desirable, because even if totalitarian policing of pandemic lockdown were viable, it also seems fair to assume that most of us would prefer not to depend on a heavily policed public health strategy.

The same kind of trust is necessary for many kinds of policy, particularly where that policy requires citizens to comply with rules that come at significant cost, and coercion alone would be ineffective. But what is distinctive about our pandemic policies is that they depend not just on public trust in policy, but public trust in the science that we are told informs that policy.

When governments follow the science, their response to the pandemic requires public trust in experts, raising questions about how we might develop measures not just to control the spread of the virus, but to maintain public confidence in the scientific recommendations that support these measures. I address some of these questions in this post (I have also addressed these same questions at greater length elsewhere).

My main point in what follows is that when public policy claims to follow the science, citizens are asked not just to believe what they are told by experts, but to follow expert recommendations. And when this is the case, it can be perfectly reasonable for a well-informed citizen to defer to experts on the relevant science, but nonetheless disagree with policy recommendations based on that science. Until we appreciate this, we will struggle to generate public support for science-led policy that is demanded by some of our most urgent political challenges.

Following the science?

Before I get to questions about the kind of public trust required by science-led policy, we need to first address the extent to which pandemic responses have indeed been led by experts. In the UK, the government’s publicly visible response to the pandemic began with repeated claims that ministers were “following the science”. 10 Downing Street began daily press conferences in March, addresses to journalists and the public in which the Prime Minister was often accompanied by the government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, or Chief Science Officer, Patrick Vallance (sometimes both). In the months that followed Vallance and Whitty played a prominent role in communicating the government’s public health strategy, standing alongside government ministers in many more press conferences and appearing on television, on radio, and in print.

But have ministers in fact followed the science? There are reasons to be sceptical. One thing to consider is whether a reductive referral to “the science” hides a partial or selective perspective informing government decisions. There is of course no one “science” of the pandemic. Different disciplines contribute different kinds of relevant information, and within disciplines experts disagree.

And some have observed that the range of disciplines informing UK government in the early spring was inexplicably narrow. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) evidence cited by government in March included advice from epidemiologists, virologists, and behavioural scientists. But some disciplines were conspicuous in their absence among the government’s experts: economists, sociologists, and psychologists, for example, can provide important insights into the economic and social effects of lockdown that ought to be considered by any genuinely evidence-based policy.

Another reason to be sceptical about the UK government’s claim to follow the science is that several SAGE meetings included Boris Johnson’s infamous Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings, with some members of SAGE stating they were worried about undue influence from Cummings. The problem is not just that “the science” government claimed to follow was incomplete, but also that the government could well have been directing the advice it was claiming to follow.

And perhaps the claim to “follow the science” has been exaggerated. While ministers defer to scientists, those same scientists have been eager to point out that their role is exclusively advisory. Government experts have consistently cleaved to a division of labour that is a cornerstone of so-called “evidence-based policy”: experts provide facts, politicians make decisions.  

Nonetheless, it has been clear throughout the UK’s response to the pandemic that government has seen fit to communicate its policy as if it were unequivocally following expert recommendations. Daily 10 Downing St press conferences, running from March to June, began with Boris Johnson at the podium flanked either side by the government’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor. The optics of this are not hard to read.

And even in recent weeks, in which the government has stopped its daily press conferences and dialled down the rhetoric of their science-led policy, ministers still claim that they defer to expert advice, despite those same experts repeatedly distancing themselves from government decision making. As recently as the end of July, in announcing the reintroduction of stricter lockdown measures in parts of Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, Matt Hancock has repeatedly deferred to evidence that a rise in infections in these areas has been caused not by a return to work, or opening pubs, but people visiting each other in their homes.

We are still being asked by the government to trust in recommendations provided by experts, even if the government is not being led by evidence in the way it would have us believe. The communications strategy may not be honest, but it has been consistent, and because the government is inviting the public to think of its policy as science-led, its public health strategy still depends on public trust in science. We are asked to accept that government is following the recommendations of experts, and that we must follow suit.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Believing what we are told

I have said above that public trust in science is both a necessary and desirable feature of an effective public health response to the pandemic. But it is desirable only insofar as it is well placed trust. I presume we don’t want the public to put their faith in just any self-identified expert, regardless of their merits and the level of their expertise. We want the public to trust experts, but only where they have good reason to do so. One important question this raises is what makes trust in experts reasonable, when it is. A second important question is what we can do to ensure that the conditions for reasonable trust in experts are indeed in place.

Philosophers of science and social epistemologists have had a lot to say about when and why it is reasonable to trust experts. The anxiety that many philosophers of epistemic trust respond to is a perceived threat to knowledge about a range of basic facts that most of us don’t have the resources to check for ourselves. Do I know whether the Earth is flat without travelling? Should I believe that penicillin can be used to treat an infection without first studying biochemistry? Though it’s important that we know such things, knowledge of this kind doesn’t meet the same evidence requirements that apply to beliefs about, say, where I left my house keys.

Thankfully, there is an influential way of rescuing knowledge about scientific matters that most of us aren’t able to verify for ourselves. In the 1980s philosopher of science John Hardwig proposed a principle that, if true, rescues the rationality of the beliefs that we hold due to our deference to experts.

Hardwig maintained that if an expert tells me that something is the case this is enough reason for me to believe it too, provided that I have good reason to think that the expert in question has good reason to believe what they tell me. Say that I have a doctor who I see regularly, and I have plenty of evidence to believe that they are competent, well-informed, and sincere. On this basis I have good reason to think that my doctor understands, for example, how to interpret my blood test results, and will not distort the truth when they discuss the results with me. I thus have good reason to think that the doctor has good reason to believe what they tell me about my test results. This is enough, Hardwig maintains, for me to form my own beliefs based on what they tell me, and my epistemic trust has good grounds.

Doing what we are told

But can the same be said when the expert isn’t just asking me to believe something, but is recommending that I do something? Is it still reasonable to trust science when it doesn’t just provide policy-relevant facts, but leads the policy itself?

Consider an elaboration of the doctor example. Say I consult my trusted doctor to discuss the option of a Do Not Attempt CPR (DNACPR) instruction. My doctor is as helpful as always, and provides me with a range of information relevant to the decision. In light of my confidence in the doctor’s professionalism, and if we accept Hardwig’s principle, we can say that I have good reason to believe the information my doctor gives me.

Now consider how I should respond if my doctor were to tell me that, in light of facts about CPR’s success and about my health, I should sign a DNACPR (and set aside the very worrying medical ethics violation involved in a doctor directing a patient in this way regarding life-sustaining treatment). I have good reason to believe the facts they have given me relevant to a DNACPR. Do I also have good reason to follow their advice on whether I should sign? Not necessarily.

For one thing, my doctor’s knowledge regarding the relevant facts might not reliably indicate their ability to reason well about what to do in light of the facts. My doctor might know everything there is to know about the risks, but also be a dangerously impulsive person, or conversely an excessively cautious, risk-averse person.

And even if I think my doctor probably has good reason to think I should sign – I believe they are as wise as they are knowledgeable – their good reason to think I should sign is not thereby a good reason for me. The doctor may have, for instance, some sort of perverse administrative incentive that encourages them to increase the number of signed DNACPRs. Or, more innocently, they may have seen too many patients and families suffer the indignity of a failed CPR attempt at the end of life, or survive CPR only to live for just two or three more days with broken ribs and severe pain. And maybe I have a deeply held conviction in the value of life, or in the purpose of medicine to preserve life at all costs, and I might think this trumps any purported value of a dignified end of life. I may not even agree with the value of dignity at the end of life in the first place.

Well-placed trust in the recommendation of an expert is more demanding than well-placed trust in their factual testimony. A good reason for an expert to believe something factual is thereby a good reason for me to believe it too. But a good reason for an expert to think I should do something is not necessarily a good reason for me to do it. And this is because what I value and what the expert values can diverge without either of us being in any way mistaken about the facts of our situation. I can come to believe everything my doctor tells me about the facts concerning CPR, but still have very good reason to think that I should not do what they are telling me to do.

Something additional is needed for me to have well-placed trust in expert recommendations. When an expert tells me not just what to believe, but what I should do, I need assurance that the expert understands what is in my interest, and that they make recommendations on this basis. An expert might make a recommendation that accords with the values that I happen to have (“want to save the NHS? Wear a face covering in public”) or a recommendation that is in my interest despite my occurrent desires (“smoking is bad for you; stop it).

If I have good reason to think that my doctor, or my plumber, or, indeed, the state epidemiologist, has a good grasp of what is in my interest, and that their recommendations are based on this, then I am in a position to have well-placed trusted in their advice. But without this assurance, I may quite reasonably distrust or disagree with expert recommendations, and not simply out of ignorance or some vague “post-truth” distrust of science in general.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Cultivating trust

This demandingness of well-placed trust in expert recommendations, as opposed to expert information, has ramifications for what we can do to cultivate public trust in (at least purportedly) expert-led policy.

Consider a measure sometimes suggested to increase levels of public trust in science: increased transparency. Transparency can help build confidence in the sincerity of scientists, a crucial requirement for public trust. It can also, of course, help us to see when politics is at greater risk of distorting the science (e.g. Dominic Cummings attending SAGE meetings), and allows us to be more discerning with where we place our trust.

Transparency can also mitigate tendencies to think that anything less than a completely value-free science is invalidated by bias and prejudice. When adjudicating on matters of fact, we can distinguish good from bad use of values in science, depending on whether they play a direct or indirect role in arriving at factual conclusions. Thus we might for instance allow values to determine what we consider an acceptable level of risk of false positives for a coronavirus test, but we would not want values to determine how we interpret the results of an individual instance of the test (“I don’t want to have coronavirus – let’s run the test again”). Transparency can help us be more nuanced in our evaluation of whether a given scientific conclusion has depended on value-judgements in a legitimate way.

But it seems to me that transparency is not so effective when we are being asked to trust in the recommendations of experts. One reason for this is that it is far less easy for us to distinguish good and bad use of values in expert advice. This is because values must always play a direct role in recommendations about what to do. The obstacle to public trust in science-led policy is not, as with public trust in scientific fact, the potential for values to overreach. The challenge is instead to give the public good reason to think that the values that inform expert recommendations align with those to whom they issue advice.

There are more direct means of achieving this than transparency. I will end with two such means, both of which can be understood as ways to democratise expert-led policy.

One helpful measure to show the public that a policy does align with their interest is what is something called expressive overdetermination: investing policy with multiple meanings such that it can be accepted from diverse political perspectives. Reform to French abortion law is sometimes cited as an example of this. After decades of disagreement, France adopted a law that made abortion permissible provided the individual has been granted an unreviewable certification of personal emergency. This new policy was sufficiently polyvalent to be acceptable to the most important parties to the debate; religious conservatives understood the certification to be protecting life, while pro-choice advocates saw the unreviewable nature of the certification as protection for the autonomy of women. The point was to find a way of showing that the same policy can align with the interests of multiple conflicting political groups, rather than to ask groups to either set aside, alter, or compromise on their values.

A second helpful measure, which complements expressive overdetermination, is to recruit spokespersons that are identifiable to diverse groups as similar to them in political outlook. This is sometimes called identity vouching. The strategy is to convince citizens that the relevant scientific advice, and the policy that follows that advice, is likely not to be a threat to their interests because that same consensus is accepted by those with similar values. Barack Obama attempted such a measure when he established links with Evangelical Christians such as Rick Warren, one of the 86 evangelical leaders who had signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative 2 years before the beginning of Obama’s presidency. The move may have had multiple intentions, but one of them is likely to have been an attempt to win over conservative Christians to Obama’s climate-change policy.

Expressive overdetermination and identity vouching are ways of showing the public that a policy is in their interests. Whether they really are successful at building public trust in policy, and more specifically in science-led policy, is a question that needs an empirical answer. What I have tried to show here is that we have good theoretical reasons to think that such additional measures are needed when we are asking the public not just to believe what scientists tell us is the case, but to comply with policy that is led by the best science.

Public trust in science comes in at least two very different forms: believing expert testimony, and following expert recommendations. Efforts to build trust in experts would do well to be sensitive to this difference.


About Matt Bennett

Matt Bennett is a lecturer with the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.  His research and teaching cover topics in ethics (theoretical and applied), political philosophy, and moral psychology, as well as historical study of philosophical work in these areas in the post-Kantian tradition. Much of his research focuses on ethical and political phenomena that are not well understood in narrowly moral terms, and he has written about non-moral forms of trust, agency, and responsibility. From October 2020 Matt will be a postdoctoral researcher with the Leverhulme Competition and Competitiveness project at the University of Essex, where he will study different forms of competition and competitiveness and the role they play in a wide range of social practices and institutions, including markets, the arts, sciences, and sports.

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Independent SAGE and their continued quest for transparency

Decisions happening behind closed doors due to a lack of transparency of the scientific evidence has been a notable concern about the UK’s response to Covid-19. [1] The last of the BBC daily briefings was held on 24 June 2020. During these a Minister regularly stood in the middle of two senior members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The job of SAGE is to pool together scientific experts and provide scientific advice to the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR). Although decisions are made by the Government’s Ministers, not SAGE, the phrase ‘we are following the science’ was regularly used to justify decisions during these briefings.

Former Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, established a separate group of experts called Independent SAGE in reaction to and part of this growing push for transparency. He warned the secrecy of the response could cause a loss of public trust in the science.[2] Independent SAGE’s first meeting was on the 4 May 2020 and live streamed on YouTube. Their website is an obvious ‘dig’ at the Ministers’ rhetoric as it uses the tagline ‘Independent SAGE. Following the Science’. [3

Sir David King, Chair of Independent SAGE. Image source: Climaterepair via Wikimeida

Independent SAGE’s quest for transparency has not stopped since their inception. The latest change being live weekly meetings with their own scientific experts on their social media channels as a response to the end of the Government’s daily briefings, with the first of these being held on 26 June 2020. There are now over 10 meetings that the public can view on Independent SAGE’s YouTube channel. [4Several reports and open letters are also available on Independent SAGE’s website. Topics include (but are not limited to) school openings, test and trace options and the impact of Covid-19 on Black and Minority Ethnic populations. 

This blog post uses media coverage to better understand these notions of transparency, the differences between SAGE and Independent SAGE and how SAGE has changed in the context of transparency over the duration of the pandemic. These sections consider whether a new standard of transparency has been set for SAGE but also highlights potential issues of having more than one scientific advisory group (albeit one not official) and the limitations of their outreach.

The origins of Independent SAGE and ongoing calls for transparency 

As soon as UK’s ministers claimed to follow the science, calls for transparency of the scientific evidence started gaining traction. As commented by James Wilsdon, a digital science professor of research policy at Sheffield University: ‘transparency must now become the default operating mode across the SAGE process…We’re in a situation of what some call ‘post-normal’ science, where the facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent’ (4 May).[5]

Although these calls for transparency were circulating since the beginning of the pandemic, a notable push to know the experts’ names came after a Guardian article on 24 April revealed that two political figures Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner had attended SAGE meetings. [6] Despite Downing Street reporting they did not participate, there was uneasiness in the media that the scientific advice was being politicised before it went up to COBR.[7Consequently, ‘concern over the secretary of SAGE’s membership reached a new pitch’. [8]  Shortly after this, Independent SAGE was established. However, in his recent interview with The Times, Sir David King indicates that ‘the seeds of Independent SAGE began to germinate’ in February when he had noticed the divergence of the UK’s approach to the rest of the world and the WHO’s advice to ‘test, test, test’. [9]

As part of their quest for transparency, Independent SAGE wanted to distinguish between the science and the politics. On 22 May, news broke in the Mirror and Guardian accusing Dominic Cummings of breaking lockdown rules. Despite a press conference in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street to explain his movements, there was an explosion of media coverage, including calls for his resignation. [10] Whether or not he broke the lockdown rules, articles emerged critiquing scientists for standing alongside ministers as they justified his decisions. The one article in The Guardian claimed the relationship between scientists and ministers had become ‘dangerously collusive’.[11]

In Independent SAGE’s meeting on 28 May the panel was asked ‘Why do you think the Government is ignoring its own advice and why [have] Whitty and Vallance in particular stopped appearing?’. Although not explicitly mentioning Dominic Cummings, it is highly likely the ongoing media coverage of him in the previous week underpinned the question. Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology at UCL responded: “One thing I think that is very important going forward is that scientific trust isn’t dented at all… it would be extremely helpful if our chief medical advisor and chief scientific officer were to give direct press briefings and direct briefings to the public to report on the scientific thinking of SAGE.” [12]: 47:20 – 48.17mins.

Independent SAGE’s online discussions take the format that Susan Michie referred to: no ministers, just scientists. In some cases, a reporter may help facilitate the discussion by welcoming members of the public to ask a question or asking one on their behalf. The most appropriate expert is then chosen to answer and others may raise their hand to indicate they also have something to add. In some cases, the public’s questions are included in the report Independent SAGE send to the Government. An example being Section 7 in their report about schools: ‘School reopening: some of your questions answered’. [13]

If watching the live Independent SAGE’s discussion on YouTube, you can see the public’s comments. Some offering opinions about the topic being discussed, but the ones that stood out for me (obviously due my interest in transparency) are those thanking Independent SAGE for indeed that, their transparency, openness and honesty. On 27 June a Crowdfunding page was set up for Independent SAGE to continue their work. The comments here also provide interesting reading. For example, one states: ‘I donated because ISAGE are working for open/transparent and effective policies to deal with COVID19. I thank them all for working on behalf of all’. [14]

Since the setup of Independent SAGE, Sir David King and other members of Independent SAGE have become increasingly visible scrutinising the decisions that the Government has made. In one of his latest interviews (published 27 June), Sir David King comments that if members of SAGE were as visible “it would have changed this immensely”. He then reiterates the critique of the ongoing rhetoric mentioned earlier: “you can’t have a minister or prime minister saying we’re just following the science advice if the public doesn’t know what the science advice was”. [9]

Although Independent SAGE’s visibility has increased since their establishment and they are being referred to in more media headlines, there are limitations to their outreach and communication of the latest scientific thinking. Those aware of Independent SAGE are likely to be those actively seeking the discussion about the scientific evidence. At the time of writing (14 July 2020), Independent SAGE have 57.8k Twitter followers and 10.9k YouTube subscribers. [1516] The co-chairs of the official SAGE, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance (England’s Chief Medical Officer and the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor) have their own Twitter pages with 256.9K and 137.6K followers respectively, SAGE itself does not have a page. [1718]   On the face of it, these numbers sound quite large. However political figures such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have 2.9M and 83.4M respectively, whilst to take an extreme example, celebrities such as Justin Bieber have 112.2M. [19 ,2021] Compared to these numbers, the outreach of Independent SAGE is small. 

Nonetheless, Independent SAGE was only established a few months ago and the 57.8K followers indicates there is a significant interest in them. Independent SAGE do not claim to be a communication platform for the guidelines but a platform for informed discussions which can be accessed by people if they so desire.

How is Independent SAGE different to SAGE?

Independent SAGE and SAGE are both made up of a body of experts from different disciplines. The official SAGE has 55 members listed as well as several sub-groups which focus on behavioural science, disease modelling, serology (scientific study or diagnostic examination of blood serum), clinical information, environmental modelling, transmission in children and hospital onset. [22] Independent SAGE originally comprised of the Chair, Sir David King, and 12 members. This has since been expanded to include a Behavioural Science Advisory Group, composed of 9 members. Some members of Independent SAGE or its sub-groups are part of SAGE or its sub-groups but the two bodies are different as Independent SAGE’s reports do not form part of the official government response.[3]   

The two groups have been mixed up on more than one occasion. During news broadcasts, members of Independent SAGE (who are not also on SAGE) have accidently been referred to as members of the official SAGE by reporters and they have had to correct them. Another more specific example of this mix up happened on the 22 May when the deputy Labour Minister, Angela Rayner, accidently referred to SAGE after Independent SAGE had published a report advising against the reopening of schools on 1 June: ‘SAGE concludes June 1st “too soon” to open schools. Teacher unions have been absolutely correct in asking for safety measures to be in place before re-opening’.[23]  She later tried to clarify that she meant Independent SAGE but subsequently both Tweets were deleted after she was accused of spreading misinformation.[24]  Her statement has been fact checked on the website ‘full fact’.[23]

In contrast to the two bodies being mixed up, several headlines have referred to Independent SAGE as a ‘rival’ group of experts.[2526, 2728In response to the use of the terminology ‘rivals’, Sir David King Tweeted ‘some have billed @IndependentSAGE as a ‘rival’ to the govts. To be absolutely clear that is not how we as a group see ourselves. Science is best when our community works together, on IndiSAGE we have a broad church of experts who are working hard to supplement existing advice’ (23 May).[29]

The mix-up and perception of Independent SAGE as ‘rivals’ emphasises a potential problem with having two separate bodies. If they are seen to contradict one another, does that just add to confusion? Should there be just the one clear voice? Or is that simply the notion of science, there is not always consensus and that’s what is important for the public to see and understand? In another interview, Sir David King explains that scientists do not always agree and science is a discipline based on the peer review process where the evidence can be scrutinised, hence the objective of Independent SAGE is to offer this scrutiny and that is why it is vital that the science being referred to by decision makers is available.[8]

A noticeable difference between SAGE and Independent SAGE is the visibility and direct communication with the experts in the public sphere. The public did have access to senior members of SAGE, such as Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty during the daily briefings where a few questions were posed by the public. However, beyond this, as far as I’m aware, there haven’t been any conversations between just the scientists that are open to the general public to listen to and participate. This is the vision of Independent SAGE. As expressed by Karl Friston, a neuroscientist advising Independent SAGE: “I think of Independent Sage as the ultimate exercise in public engagement; what it would look like if you and I and everyone else were able to sit in on a real Sage meeting… In my view there can never be anything wrong with transparent, informed discussion.” [30]

Ascribing the virtue of public engagement to Independent SAGE should be carefully considered. In town planning policy, the terminology of public participation has many levels, from the consultation being tokenistic to the public having a significant impact on the design of a development. The channel that Independent SAGE has opened informs the public through a question and answer session, where some of those concerns are passed onto the government. They do not give access to the inner workings of writing the report. Nonetheless, access to a more in-depth question and answer session is an important quality and Whitty himself has noted that he has been much more shorthanded than he would have liked in the briefings when he was questioned about the changing guidelines of social distancing from 2m to 1m+ in the last daily briefing. [31]: 40.46 – 41.00mins.

There is a practical feasibility issue in having meetings like Independent SAGE, especially as the official SAGE includes more experts and sub-groups and all of those members will be under significant time-pressures (that’s not to say members of Independent SAGE are not busy as they are also volunteering their time whilst being in full time work). However, if some of the experts in the official SAGE, beyond those in senior roles, were able to factor in an hour of their time to answer some of the public’s concerns directly and in the format of a group discussion, it would be welcomed by members of the public seeking more detail about the scientific evidence. This question and answer format would help to balance the concerns about protecting national security and being open with the public as the public wouldn’t be listening into the actual deliberations but could still hear directly, and in more detail about what the science unpinning decisions is. Navigating through the evidence on the website for SAGE can quite easily become overwhelming. 

Another difference between SAGE and Independent SAGE is the perception that Independent SAGE is a left-wing body. An example of this is the Daily Mail headline: ‘Ex-science tsar Sir David King has built a Left-wing cabel to disperse virus health advice (but says ministers’ experts are too political to be trusted!’.[32In response to this criticism, Sir David King once again used Twitter as the communication channel and stated that political ideology is irrelevant and that the job of the scientific experts is to give scientific advice not political advice, and emphasised that it is up to the ministers to make the decisions.[33] The very fact that he had to respond, shows that the perception is/was there, so much so he felt it needed addressing. 

The ‘boundary’ between science and politics has been an issue throughout the pandemic. How has the science been used within decisions which are inevitably political? Hence, the calls for transparency and concerns about trust. Scientists who are/were members of SAGE, such as Professor John Edmunds and Professor Neil Ferguson, have separately spoken out that lockdown did not happen soon enough and was being eased too quickly, whilst Melanie Smallman, a Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at UCL, describes the terminology ‘Independent SAGE’ as an oxymoron arguing that that ‘the idea that government advisers can separate science and politics is bogus’. [343536]

Has SAGE’s approach to transparency changed during the pandemic?

A short and simple answer to this question is yes. At the beginning of the pandemic, none of the evidence being referred to was available, the expert’s names were not released and the minutes of the meetings were not accessible. When there were the growing calls to release the names of the experts, Sir Patrick Vallance said the decision to not release them was due to concerns about safeguarding the individual’s personal security, based on advice from Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure.[37] However, pressure continued to mount and the experts were given an opt-out option and then the names were released on the 4 May. This was the same day as Independent SAGE’s first meeting, which Sir David King has commented he doesn’t think was a coincidence.[38]

The Government Office for Science’s website for SAGE openly acknowledges that SAGE’s approach has changed during the course of the pandemic. The website says that in previous events the minutes and supporting documentation were not published until the conclusion of the relevant emergency in order to protect any national security and operational considerations and allow ministers to consider ‘free and frank advice’ from the experts. It also states ‘we have revisited this approach in light of the current exceptional circumstances, recognising the high level of public interest in the nature and content of SAGE advice’.[39Then it goes on to say, SAGE will now publish all past minutes and supporting documents and future minutes and documentations within one month of the meeting taking place. To overcome the concerns about protecting individuals and national security, in some cases information is redacted from these. When following the link to the minutes, the website user is taken to a page with the header ‘Transparency and freedom of information releases’ specific to SAGE. [40] In a comment in The Telegraph, Sir Patrick Vallance also acknowledges this change in SAGE saying ‘when it comes to this crisis it is clear we must get the information out as soon as possible, and in my opinion, as close to real time as is feasible and compatible with allowing ministers the time they need’. [41]

Obviously, the current approach is more transparent than it was at the start of the pandemic but as we are in such a fast-moving situation, to some, a one-month delay in the publication is not satisfactory, particularly for those that want to review and scrutinise the evidence before decisions are made, rather than just be informed what the evidence is when there are key policy changes. An example of evidence being released as policy changed is after an announcement on 23 June. In this announcement the public were told that from 4 July, the 2m social distancing rule could be reduced to 1m+ if social distancing was not possible. The + meaning with mitigation measures. A review of the 2 metre social distancing guidance was published by the Cabinet Office on the 24 June. [42] Within the text of this, a link is provided to a SAGE report from a meeting on the 4 June (published 12 June) entitled ‘Transmission of SARS-CoV2 and Mitigating Measures’.[43]  In this, the executive summary states ‘Physical distancing is an important mitigation measure (high confidence). Where a situation means that 2m face-to-face distancing cannot be achieved it is strongly recommended that additional mitigation measures including (but not limited to) face coverings and minimising duration of exposure are adopted (medium confidence)’. 

In addition to the release of experts’ names and evidence, scientists have emphasised that SAGE’s job is to advise, not make decisions. A document published on 5 May explaining what SAGE is and its response to Covid-19 outlines that ‘The government is not beholden to what SAGE says, and the evidence SAGE puts forward forms just one part of what the government considers before adopting new policies and interventions during an emergency. In this current pandemic, the government also has to consider other factors’.[44] Another example being, Sir Patrick Vallance describing what SAGE is and how the science is being used for decisions in his comment in The Telegraph on 30 May. He acknowledges that SAGE is not a group of people in consensus, that the science will not always be right and that it will change over time as we learn more. He also noted that science advice is just that, advice and the ‘Ministers must decide and have to take many other factors into consideration’.[41] In the last daily briefing, Professor Chris Whitty made it clear that decisions on the easing of lockdown are a balance of risk. These are risks accepted by the Ministers to reduce the spread of the virus but also open up the economy. They are also risks accepted by individuals as they go about their everyday life. In order for individuals to make informed decisions, the pressure remains for the emerging scientific evidence to become available.

It’s very easy to criticise in situations where you are not the decision maker, or even one of the main advisers, Sir David King himself says he’s glad he’s not currently in Sir Patrick Vallance’s position.[9However, it’s clear that if Ministers say they are ‘following the science’, they should recognise that many people want to know what this science is. Without that, trust can easily be lost. If trust is lost, this can impact whether or not people follow the guidelines. Although it will be impossible to pinpoint exactly what caused SAGE to make the changes that it did, such as the release of experts’ names, evidence and minutes, undoubtedly the fact this is an event affecting everyone’s daily life led to the growing calls for transparency. Independent SAGE have clearly made their point about what they think this transparency should look like. It is likely the group contributed to the growing pressure, particularly with their presence on Twitter, which then fed into members being contacted by news outlets and several articles referring to ‘Independent SAGE’s’ advice, particularly when that went against the latest government decisions.

An open letter to the leaders of the UK political parties published in the British Medical Journal was published on 24 June following the last daily briefing expressing concern over the preparedness for a second wave.[45]  If there is a little ‘breathing room’ over the summer months, one part of this preparedness should be reflecting on the communication of the science and the evidence. SAGE should continue to release the minutes and update the evidence, but perhaps this could be taken a step further by applying some of the principles of Independent SAGE including hosting online discussions with only scientific experts and not ministers, as well as a more active presence on Twitter and other social media platforms to direct people towards these updates. Even if there is not a second wave, there will be future events that SAGE will be involved in and now there is this increased awareness of them, they will inevitable be under increased scrutiny – so the notion of transparency needs to continue wherever feasibly possible. 

However, it is important to note that one limitation of this blog post is that it has assumed transparency is a good virtue which should be strived towards. Before the pandemic (2017), Dr Stephen John, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, argues that transparency is not always beneficial. One reason being, transparency can increase confusion as members of the public may expect consensus and that’s not what science always is.[46] In the context of Covid-19 we have seen that if the evidence is not released, it gives the impression that the Government are hiding information from the public, however if released the public can pick and choose what they communicate on social media or to their peers. In the last few days, we have seen lots of mixed messages about face coverings, the Metro’s headline (13 July) being: ‘Call to clear up the mask muddle’.[47] As the evidence for face coverings has changed over time, people arguing for and against them, are selecting the evidence which supports their viewpoint. If we assume transparency is a good virtue due to the provision of information for those that seek it, these problems of mixed messaging and misinformation need to be overcome. The Government need to carefully consider the communication channels that they use and how to extend their outreach. This communication needs to clearly explain what the guidelines are but also, as with the face mask debate, why they have changed. Clarity is key. 

Text by Dr Hannah Baker 

Disclaimer: Published 14 July 2020. This article is based on media coverage and reports found online. Despite her best efforts to locate all relevant information, the author acknowledges there may be key pieces of information she would have missed. Members of Independent SAGE or SAGE have not been contacted for comment. 

Thumbnail image source: Climaterepair via Wikimeida
















































Economists in the City #7 1024 688 Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #7

Regions and Cities: Policy Narratives and Policy Challenges in the UK

by Philipp McCann

Many of the narratives that now dominate policy debates in the United Kingdom and Europe regarding questions of interregional convergence and divergence are derived from observations overwhelmingly based on the experience of the United States, and to a much smaller extent Canada and Australia (Sandbu 2020). These narratives often focus on the supposed ‘Triumph of the City’ (Glaeser 2011) and the problems of ‘left behind’ small towns and rural areas. Moreover, many debates about ‘the city’ – which immediately jump to discussions of London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, etc. – often have very little relevance for thinking about how the vast majority of urban dwellers live and work, in most parts of the world.

Unfortunately, however, the empirical evidence suggests that many of these narratives only have very limited applicability to the European context (Dijkstra et al. 2015). The European context is a patchwork of quite differing national experiences, and these types of US-borrowed narratives only reflect the urban and rural growth experiences of a few western European countries such as France, plus the central European former-transition economies (Dijkstra et al. 2013; McCann 2015).

Interregional divergence has indeed been a feature of most countries since the 2008 crisis and this is also likely to increase in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, but not necessarily in the way that these US narratives suggest. Indeed, it is important to consider these issues in detail because interregional inequality has deep and pernicious social consequences (Collier 2018), without necessarily playing any positive role in economic growth. Across the industrialised world there is no relationship between national economic growth and interregional inequality (Carrascal-Incera et al. 2020), and more centralised states tend to be more interregionally unequal and to have much larger primal cities. In the case of the UK, very high interregional inequality and an over-dominance by London has been achieved with no national growth advantage whatsoever over competitor countries.

Blackpool, Lancashire, England, UK. (Photo by Michael D Beckwith, wikicommons)

The problems associated with narrative-transfer leading to policy-transfer are greatly magnified in the UK due to our poor language skills, whereby UK media, think-tanks, ministries and media are only really able to benchmark the UK experience against the experiences of other English-speaking countries such as USA, Canada and Australia. Yet, when it comes to urban and regional issues this particular grouping of countries in reality represents just about the least applicable comparator grouping possible. These countries are each larger than the whole of Europe, they have highly polycentric national spatial structures, and they are federal countries, whereas the UK is smaller than Wyoming, is almost entirely monocentric, and is an ultra-centralised top-down unitary state with levels of local government autonomy akin to Albania or Moldova (OECD 2019).

These problems are now evident again in the UK in the debates regarding ‘levelling up’. When we think about the role of cities and regions in our national growth story, in the case of the UK it is very difficult to translate many of the ideas currently popular in the North American urban economics arena to the specifics of the UK context. The literature on agglomeration economies and also the widespread international empirical evidence confirms that cities are key drivers of national economic growth, and evidence from certain countries suggests that nowadays there are large and growing productivity differences between urban and rural regions.

Yet, in the UK case the evidence suggests that these patterns are only partially correct. Some very prosperous urban areas such as London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Bristol, Reading and Milton Keynes contribute heavily to the national economic growth story. On the other hand, many of the UK’s large cities located outside of the South of England underperform by both national and international standards and contribute much less to economic performance than might otherwise be expected on the basis of international comparators (McCann 2016).

What are the features of this under-performance? Firstly, in the UK there is almost no relationship between localised productivity and the size of the urban area (Ahrend et al. 2015; OECD 2015), especially once London is removed from the analysis, whereas positive city size-productivity relationships are widely observed in many countries. Secondly, there are only very small productivity differences between the performance of large cities and urban areas, between small cities and towns, and between urban areas in general and rural areas (ONS 2017). Indeed, many of the UK’s most prosperous places are small towns and rural areas while some of the poorest places in the UK are large cities. Thirdly, sectoral explanations play an ever-decreasing role (Martin et al. 2018) and interregional migration has remained largely unchanged for four decades (McCann 2016). Fourthly, a simple and mechanistic reading of Zipf’s Law tells us little or nothing about UK urban growth or productivity challenges in the UK. As such, many simple urban economic textbook-type analyses are of limited, little, or no use at all for understanding the UK regional and urban context, as are stylised discussions about so-called MAR-vs-Jacobs externalities, spatial sorting, or ‘people-based versus place-based’ policies.

The UK economy is one of the world’s most interregionally unbalanced industrialised economies (McCann 2016, 2019, 2020; Carrascal-Incera et al. 2020), characterised as it is by an enormous core-periphery structure. UK inequalities between regions are very high by international standards, and inequalities between its cities are also quite high by international standards, but less so than for regions. This is because of the regional spatial clustering, partitioning and segregation of groups of prosperous cities, towns and rural areas into certain regions (broadly the South and Scotland) and the regional spatial clustering, partitioning and segregation of groups of low prosperity cities, towns and rural areas in other regions (Midlands, North, Wales, Norther Ireland).

In particular, the differential long-run performance of UK cities by regional location is very stark. Obviously, there are low prosperity places in the South (Hastings, Clacton, Tilbury, etc.) and prosperous places elsewhere (Ripon, Chester, Warwick, etc.), but what is remarkable is the extent to which these exceptions are almost entirely towns. Indeed, many of the most prosperous places in the Midlands and the North are also towns, while the South also accounts for huge numbers of very prosperous small towns and villages. Unless our policy-narratives closely reflect the realities of the urban and regional challenges facing the UK it is unlikely that policy actions will be effective, and narrative-transfer from the US to the UK is often very unhelpful.

In the case of the current ‘levelling up’ debates these issues are especially important. Given the seriousness and the scale of the situation that we are in, our policy narratives should be led by a careful reading of the literature and a detailed examination of the data on cities (Martin et al. 2018), trade (Chen et al. 2018), connectivity and spatial structures (Arbabi et al. 2019; 2020) in the context of widespread consultation (UK2070 2020) and not on the skills of speechwriters or ideologically-led partisan politics. Brexit, alone, will almost certainly lead to greater long-term interregional inequalities (Billing et al. 2019; McCann and Ortega-Argilés 2020a,b), and Covid-19 is likely to further exacerbate these inequalities.

Our hyper-centralised governance set-up is almost uniquely ill-equipped to address these challenges, and while the setting up of the three Devolved Administrations along with the recent movement towards City-Region Combined Authorities are all steps in the right direction, a much more fundamental reform of our governance systems is required in order to address these challenges. These devolution (not decentralisation!) issues are the difficult institutional challenges that must be focussed on in order to foster the types of agglomeration spillovers and linkages that we would want to see across the country, whereby cities can underpin the economic buoyance of their regional, small-town and rural hinterlands.

A key test of this will be the design of the new ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the replacement for EU Cohesion Policy, which for many years had played such an important role in the economic development of the weaker regions of the UK. If the Shared Prosperity Fund programme and processes are devolved, cross-cutting in their focus, allow for specific and significant local tailoring, and are also long-term in nature, then this will be an indication that institutional change is moving in the right direction. But if this Fund is organised in a largely top-down, sectoral, centrally-designed and orchestrated fashion, and is also competitive in nature, then this will clearly indicate otherwise… Let’s see.


Ahrend, R., Farchy, E., Kaplanis, I., and Lembcke, A., 2014, “What Makes Cities More Productive? Evidence on the Role of Urban Governance from Five OECD Countries”, OECD Regional Development Working Papers 2014/05, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris

Arbabi, H., Mayfield, M., and McCann, P., 2019, “On the Development Logic of City-Regions: Inter- Versus Intra-City Mobility in England and Wales”, Spatial Economic Analysis, 14.3, 301-320

Arbabi, H., Mayfield, M., and McCann, P., 2020, “Productivity, Infrastructure, and Urban Density: An Allometric Comparison of Three European City-Regions across Scales”, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A, 183.1, 211-228

Billing, C., McCann, P., and Ortega-Argilés, R., 2019, “Interregional Inequalities and UK Sub-National Governance Responses to Brexit”, Regional Studies, 53.5, 741-760

Carrascal-Incera, A., McCann, P., Ortega-Argilés, R., and Rodríguez-Pose, A., 2020, UK Interregional Inequality in a Historical and International Comparative Context”, National Institute Economic Review, Forthcoming

Chen, W., Los, B., McCann, P., Ortega-Argilés, R., Thissen, M., van Oort, F., 2018, “The Continental Divide? Economic Exposure to Brexit in Regions and Countries on Both Sides of the Channel”, Papers in Regional Science, 97.1, 25-54

Collier, P., 2018, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the Anxieties, Penguin Books, London

Dijkstra, L., Garcilazo, E., and McCann, P., 2013, “The Economic Performance of European Cities and City-Regions: Myths and Realities”, 2013, European Planning Studies, 21.3, 334-354

Dijkstra, L., Garcilazo, E., and McCann, P., 2015, “The Effects of the Global Financial Crisis on European Regions and Cities”, Journal of Economic Geography, 15.5, 935-949

Glaeser, E.L., 2011, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Penguin Press, New York

Martin, R., Sunley, P., Gardiner, B., and Evenhuis, E., and Peter Tyler, 2018, “The City Dimension of the Productivity Problem: The Relative Role of Structural Change and Within-Sector Slowdown”, Journal of Economic Geography, 18.3, 539-570

McCann, P., 2015, The Regional and Urban Policy of the European Union: Cohesion, Results-Orientation and Smart Specialisation, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham

McCann, P., 2016, The Regional and Urban Policy of the European Union: Cohesion, Results-Orientation and Smart Specialisation, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham

McCann, P., 2019, “Perceptions of Regional Inequality and the Geography of Discontent: Insights from the UK”, Regional Studies, 53.5, 741–760

McCann, P., 2020, “Productivity Perspectives: Observations from the UK and the International Arena”, in McCann, P., and Vorley, T., (eds.), Productivity Perspectives, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham

McCann, P., and Ortega-Argilés, R., 2020a, “Regional Inequality” 2020, in Menon, A., (ed.), Brexit: What Next?, UK in a Changing Europe.

McCann, P., and Ortega-Argilés, R., 2020b, “Levelling Up, Rebalancing and Brexit?”, in McCabe, S., and Neilsen, B., (eds.), English Regions After Brexit, Bitesize Books, London

OECD, 2015, The Metropolitan Century: Understanding Urbanisation and its Consequences, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris

OECD, 2019, OECD Making Decentralisation Work 2019, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris

ONS, 2017, “Exploring Labour Productivity in Rural and Urban Areas in Great Britain: 2014”, UK Office for National Statistics.

Sandbu, M., 2020, The Economics of Belonging, A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ

UK2070, 2020, Make No Little Plans: Acting At Scale For A Fairer And Stronger Future, UK2070 Commission Final Report, See:

Philipp McCann is Professor of Urban and Regional Economics in the University of Sheffield Management School.

Other posts from the blogged conference:

Technology as a Driver of Agglomeration by Diane Coyle

Urban Agglomeration, City Size and Productivity: Are Bigger, More Dense Cities Necessarily More Productive? by Ron Martin

The Institutionalization of Regional Science  In the Shadow of Economics by Anthony Rebours

Cities and Space: Towards a History of ‘Urban Economics’, by Beatrice Cherrier & Anthony Rebours

Economists in the City: Reconsidering the History of Urban Policy Expertise: An Introduction, by Mike Kenny & Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #6 938 792 Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #6

Technology as a Driver of Agglomeration

by Diane Coyle

Urbanisation has for centuries been a marker of economic development, while Alfred Marshall provided the basic economic analysis of the forces of agglomeration in his 1890 Principles of Economics. Yet economic research into cities and agglomeration – into the geography of the economy – has revived significantly since the late 1990s, including work by prominent economists such as Ed Glaeser, Paul Krugman and Tony Venables.

For most of the mid-20th century economics largely lived up to its caricature as a discipline analysing the world in terms of atomistic optimising individuals in linear models, and paid decreasing attention to the specifics of history or geography. The profession rewarded the ability to manipulate mathematical models while steadily dropping from the curriculum the requirement to study the world in all its untidy detail. So what was the reason for the 1990s renewal of interest in agglomeration, the spatial distribution of economic activity? Digitalisation was starting to change the dynamics of the economy in the 1990s. When I started writing about the economic and social effects of digital technologies around the same time, it seemed clear to me that the forces driving urbanisation would intensify (although others predicted the opposite effect, the loosening of geographical ties or ‘death of distance’). Marshall’s original explanations for the concentration of activity in the same places – closeness to market, depth of the labour market and proximity to ideas – still stood but the importance of exchanging ideas was growing as the role of high value added services and intangible (‘weightless’) activities in the economy expanded.

In these ideas-driven activities, Michael Polanyi’s tacit knowledge looms large. In any new domain of activity it anyway takes some time for the information needed to operate a new machine or process, say, to become systematic enough to be codified – written down in instructions that someone else can follow – as James Bessen describes in his outstanding book Learning By Doing. This is the situation now with areas such as AI and big data; although the computational and data handling processes are central, operating them is still a craft skill, passed on between practitioners. Moreover, when it comes to ideas-based work in general, it is difficult-to-impossible to pass on know-how without conversation – although the pandemic is an enforced test of whether improved videoconferencing can finally substitute for face-to-face contact (as Richard Baldwin predicts).

Source: Unplash, Unsplash License.

As economists rediscovered the importance of place, the importance of history also re-emerged, again prompted by the arrival of the new technologies. History is the source of evidence about the economic impact of the periodic arrival of general-purpose technologies with wide application such as digital or AI, so researchers started looked back to the Industrial Revolution or even the printing press. An influential example is Paul David explicitly comparing the diffusion and productivity effects of electrification and computerisation. More recent work has specifically highlighted the role of another 19th century technology, the steam train, in driving substantial urban agglomeration. And the role of ideas and technology in economic growth gained broader traction through Paul Romer’s endogenous growth theory.

It has taken some time, however, for the full implications of geographic agglomeration to filter through both economic research and particularly economic policy. The role of both historical and geographical context, of path-dependence in economic trajectories, of the dynamics of self-fulfilling processes, stand in contrast to the (mainly) linear and context-free tradition of economics for much of its 20th century practice. This has recently started to change, driven perhaps by growing understanding of digital dynamics (or by the overlap with the dynamics of natural systems in environmental economics) with a new focus in economic research on increasing returns, network effects and tipping points.

Evidence has also underlined the need to take agglomeration seriously. The growth of global cities has been obvious. Patricia Melo finds that productivity drops off with distance from city centres. Influential research by Enrico Moretti and David Autor among others indicates that in the US the big city lead is accelerating: the often-observed occupational and income polarization has a geography.

However, the policy implications of the polarising, snowball-type dynamics of an increasingly digital economy have taken some time to become clear. The first iteration in policy was probably the desire many city authorities had to become a locus for the ‘creative classes’, focusing on amenities and culture, or alternatively their competing bids to have science campuses or other high-skill magnets. A second reaction was the argument that it was pointless to resist the market dynamics, which would self-equilibrate by pushing up prices of housing and creating congestion in the attractive places.

Source: Unplash, Unsplash License.

Both have some truth. Amenities and physical facilities can act as magnets. Markets will bring about some adjustments in behaviour. Neither is an adequate approach to policy in contexts where the big city/small town & rural divide is starting to have significant political consequences – for recent voting trends in many countries reflect to some extent the geography of economic division. To make matters even more urgent, the covid-19 pandemic is clearly amplifying existing societal inequalities of all kinds.

Yet there are no simple policy recipes in contexts of hard-to-predict non-linear and path dependent dynamics. History casts a long shadow and points of inflexion depend on the interactions of many variables in a complex system. Changing the dynamics will require the alignment of a number of different policy interventions, just as a key needs to align all the tumblers in a lock before the door will open. One area of policy I have explored, with Marianne Sensier, is the use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) for the appraisal of public transport investments. This frequently-used (in the UK) policy tool uses place-specific land values and productivity measures to determine whether an investment is worthwhile, resulting in a strong bias to approving them in the already-most productive places. The rationale is the wish to contribute as much as possible to national productivity but of course it plays to the idea that agglomeration is a natural result of the way markets operate and reinforces spatial inequality within the nation. Nor can CBA methods take into account the counterfactual returns to an investment if other policies were put into effect at the same time: housebuilding, investment in amenities, and training alongside an upgraded commuter line, for example. Thinking about policies one by one rather than as a suite aiming to shift a system outcome cannot overcome the powerful technology-driven dynamics.

At a minimum, policymakers need a far more granular understanding of places other than the handful of high skill global cities. In the super-centralised UK, the availability of data at sub-national level has improved dramatically in recent years but we still know too little about the geography of supply chains or skills, although complexity theory and other innovative approaches are providing new insights.

The combination of the ‘levelling up’ policy agenda and behaviour change following the pandemic will surely make prospects outside the big urban agglomerations the focus of policy in the near future. But unless there is a reversal of the historical complementarity between technologies of communication and face-to-face contact, human proximity in major cities will continue to be the engine of economic growth. That means finding a way to make the forces of agglomeration deliver prosperity without polarisation will continue to be the analytical and policy challenge.

Diane Coyle is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.

Other posts from the blogged conference:

Urban Agglomeration, City Size and Productivity: Are Bigger, More Dense Cities Necessarily More Productive? by Ron Martin

The Institutionalization of Regional Science  In the Shadow of Economics by Anthony Rebours

Cities and Space: Towards a History of ‘Urban Economics’, by Beatrice Cherrier & Anthony Rebours

Economists in the City: Reconsidering the History of Urban Policy Expertise: An Introduction, by Mike Kenny & Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #5 1024 649 Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #5

Urban Agglomeration, City Size and Productivity: Are Bigger, More Dense Cities Necessarily More Productive?

by Ron Martin

Economists and Cities

Over the past three to four decades, economists’ interest in cities has undergone an unprecedented expansion. The renaissance of urban economics (hence the moniker ‘new urban economics’) and the rise of the ‘so-called ‘new economic geography’ (inspired especially by Paul Krugman), have together directed considerable theoretical and empirical attention to cities, how they function as economies and their importance as sources of economic growth and prosperity. This heightened focus on cities no doubt reflects the fact that, globally, the majority of people now live in cities, and that it is in cities that the bulk of economic activity is located, jobs are concentrated, and wealth is produced. And as the urbanist Jane Jacobs emphasised nearly forty years ago, cities are the main nodes in national and global trade networks.[1] Such is now the economic significance and success of cities that the leading urban economist Ed Glaeser has been moved to declare the ‘triumph of the city’, as the ‘invention that makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier’.[2]

Whilst geographers have long studied cities, not just as economic entities but also as arenas of social and cultural life, it has been the work of these urban and spatial economists that has attracted the attention of policymakers, in large part, one suspects, because of the seeming formal rigour of the models that many of these economists have used to guide and underpin their analyses of cities, and their deployment of those models to derive policy implications. The equilibrist nature of many of these models – whereby the concentration of economic activity into cities is an equilibrium outcome of market-driven economic processes – also probably appeals to policy-makers, since policies can then be justified if they work to assist the operation of those market processes and help to overcome any ‘market failures’.

The Mantra of Agglomeration

If there is one aspect of this body of economists’ work on cities that has become a dominant theme, it is that of agglomeration. Indeed, the notion has assumed almost hegemonic status in the new urban economics, the new economic geography and other related branches of spatial economics, in that the agglomeration of firms and skilled workers in cities is assumed to be the driver of various positive externalities and increasing returns effects (such as knowledge spillovers, local supply chains, specialised intermediaries, and pools of skilled labour) that in turn are claimed to be instrumental in fostering innovation, productivity, creativity, and enterprise.  Further, according to this chain of reasoning, other things being equal, the larger a city is, or the greater is the density of activity and population in a city, the more powerful and pervasive are the associated agglomeration externalities: bigger is better, and denser is better.

Policymakers have eagerly seized on this sort of argument. Almost every policy statement and strategy for boosting local and regional economic performance – whether emanating from central UK Government policymakers, from the local and city policy community or from the policy reports prepared by ‘think tanks’ and consultancies – sooner or later singles out boosting ‘agglomeration’ as a key imperative. It has almost reached the point where the agglomeration argument has become unassailable, a conventional wisdom that is all but taken for granted, and unquestioned.  Voices of dissent are either ignored or dismissed (typically for not being based on the sort of formal models used by the exponents of the agglomeration thesis).  In many respects, agglomeration theory has become protected by ‘confirmation bias’, where empirical support (often selective) is exaggerated and evidence that runs counter to or which fails to confirm the theory is discounted.[3]

City Size and Productivity

One of the issues that illustrates this state of affairs is the claim that city size (and hence greater agglomeration) promotes higher productivity.[4] This is a particularly pertinent claim with respect to economic debates in the UK because of the current policy concern over the stagnation of national productivity, in general, and the low productivity of many of the country’s northern cities, more specifically.

A number of studies of the advanced economies – the UK included – have been conducted to estimate how productivity increases with city size, typically involving cross-section models that regress the former on the latter (with or without controlling variables). The size of the effect of city size on city productivity from these studies is, however, modest to say the least. Typically, a doubling of city size is estimated to be associated with an increase in the level of productivity of between 2-5 percent (see, for example, Ahrend et al, 2014; OECD, 2020[5]). To put these sorts of estimates into the UK context, compare, for example, London and Manchester. In 2016, London’s nominal labour productivity (as measured by GVA per employed worker) of £57,000 was 50 percent higher than Manchester’s £38,000. So, if we assume an elasticity of 5 percent, a doubling of Manchester’s population (or employment) – even if that was achievable and desirable – would only raise Manchester’s productivity to around £40,000. This hardly represents a major ‘levelling up’ towards the level of London, the aim of current Government policy. 

Figure 1: Productivity and City Size, 2015. Key to Cities: 1-London, 2-Birmingham, 3-Manchester, 4-Sheffield, 5-Newcastle, 6-Bristol, 7-Glasgow, 8-Edinburgh, 9-Liverpool, 10-Leeds, 11-Cardiff.

In fact, the evidence for the UK suggests that the city size argument should be viewed with caution. Using the estimates of labour productivity for some 85 British cities defined in terms of travel to work areas, the (logged regression) relationship between labour productivity (GVA per employed worker) and city size is small (a doubling of city size is associated with a mere 4 percent higher productivity (Figure1).[6] London, as the largest and most dense city, has the highest labour productivity.  However, the next largest cities – Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Bristol and Nottingham – all have much lower productivity, in fact below the national average. Some of the highest productivity cities after London – such as Reading, Milton Keynes, Swindon and Oxford – are all much smaller in size or less dense as urban centres.  If we measure agglomeration in terms of the density of employment, as many economists would argue, the association is even smaller ( a doubling of density yields only a 2.5 percent increase in city productivity – Figure 2). Clearly, other factors than size or agglomeration alone are at work in influencing a city’s labour productivity.[7]

Figure 2: Productivity and City Density, 2015. Key to Cities:  As in Figure 1.

What Makes London So Different?

Nevertheless, the agglomeration argument has proved tenacious. Both academic economists and many policymakers have argued that the productivity gap between London and major northern UK cities is not that London is exceptional but that major northern cities are too small.  Advocates of this view have invoked Zipf’s law of city sizes, sometimes known as the rank-size rule. This rule states that the population of a city is inversely proportional to its rank. If the rule held exactly, then the second largest city in a country would have half the population of the biggest city; the third largest city would have one third the population, and so on. Put another way, according to Zifp’s law, if we plot the ranks of a country’s cities against their sizes on a graph, using logarithmic scales, then the line relating rank to population is downward sloping, with a slope of -1. Appealing to this law, Overman and Rice (2008), for example, argue that while medium sized cities in England are, roughly speaking, about the size that Zipf’s law would predict given the size of London, the largest city, the major second-tier cities in the north of the country all lie below the Zipf line and hence are smaller than would be predicted.[8] This is assumed to mean that they lack the agglomeration effects that London enjoys.

The empirical evidence for Zipf’s Law is, however, highly varied internationally (see Brakman, Garretsen and van Marrewijk, 2019).[9] Further, there is no generally accepted theoretical economic explanation of Zipf’s law, nor does the ‘law’ tell us how far a city can fall below the rank-size rule line before it is deemed to be ‘too small’, or how this will affect its economic performance. Perhaps more seriously, it is indeed the case that Zipf’s law does not in fact hold for a national urban political economic system of the sort that characterises the UK.

As Paul Krugman (1996) argues, while the Zipf relationship holds fairly closely for the cities of the United States, and has done so over a long period of time, indicating a pattern of equal proportionate growth across the urban system, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere:

Zipf’s law is not quite as neat in other countries as it is in the United States, but it still seems to hold in most places, if you make one modification: many countries, for example, France and the United Kingdom, have a single ‘primate city’ that is much larger than a line drawn through the distribution of other cities would lead you to expect. These primate cities are typically political capitals: it is easy to imagine that they are essentially different creatures from the rest of the urban system. (Krugman, p. 41, emphases added).[10]

London is indeed a ‘different creature’ from the rest of the UK’s urban system.  Not only is it the national capital, but a major global centre, and its development is likely to reflect the benefits of that role, and be less linked to (even significantly decoupled from) the rest of its national urban system.[11] These observations suggest that in such cases, it makes little real economic sense to argue that second tier cities below the primate capital city are ‘too small’ relative to what the rank-size rule would predict, since the size of the capital itself has to do with national political and administrative roles and factors in addition to the purely economic.

As the nation’s capital, London has long benefited from being the political centre (one the most centralised of the advanced economies), containing the nation’s main financial institutions an markets (that historically were much more regionally distributed), the main organs of Government policy-making (the UK is one of the most centralised on the OECD countries), a large number of headquarters of major corporations, the largest concentration of top universities, and a high degree of policy autonomy relative to other UK cities. This has meant that it attracts much of the talent and skilled of the country’s workforce.[12] In recent years, it has also benefited from a disproportionate share of major infrastructural investment. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that it has a high productivity. Yet the high productivity of several much smaller cities suggests that size and agglomeration are not everything.

Beyond the Agglomeration Credo

This is not to say that agglomeration is irrelevant – clearly all cities of whatever size benefit to a greater or lesser extent from the local concentration and proximity of workers, firms and infrastructures. But aiming to improve the productivity of Britain’s northern cities by substantially expanding their size or density may be neither necessary nor sufficient as a strategy. The relevant question to pose is why are smaller, and less dense, cities more productive, and what policy lessons might be learned from their experience?   What a city does is obviously important, not just in sectoral terms, but also in terms of functions and tasks (and hence roles in domestic and international supply networks and chains). So, relatedly, is its export base. Further, and crucially, its innovative capacity; its ability to produce and retain, highly educated and skilled workers; its levels of entrepreneurship; the quality and efficiency of its infrastructures; and the extent of its decentralised powers of economic governance; these are all of key importance.  Cities outside London have for decades scored poorly on such factors. But these drivers of productivity cannot simply or solely be reduced to ‘insufficient agglomeration’. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ cities traditionally once formed polycentric regional systems of innovative and competitive, export-orientated manufacturing. They have lost that role through sustained deindustrialisation, in part because of globalisation and technological lock-in, in part because of spatial biases in national economic policy and management that favoured London and ignored manufacturing. Finding a new role for Britain’s northern cities will be key to their economic renaissance.  Cities do not have to be big or more dense to succeed, but adaptive, dynamic and with appropriate powers of self-determination.[13] Theorising and understanding economic adaptability might yield greater policy dividends than yet more theorising and promotion of agglomeration.

[1] Jane Jacobs (1985) Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life, New York: Vintage Books.

[2] Ed Glaeser (2011) The Triumph of the City: How or Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, London: Macmillan.

[3] The negative effects of increasing size and density – such the diseconomies of increased congestion, pollution, travel time, and land and housing costs, are infrequently given the due empirical attention they deserve. It is also significant that in surveys of quality of life satisfaction, large cities often score less well than smaller cities and towns.  London reports some of the lowest average life satisfaction in the UK (see, for example).

[4] See, for example, Glaeser, E. (2010) Agglomeration Economics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Glaeser, E. (2011) The Wealth of Cities: Agglomeration Economies and Spatial Equilibrium in the United States, NBER Working Paper 14806; Combes, P., Duranton, G., Gobillon, L., Puga, D., & Roux, S. (2012). The Productivity Advantages of Large Cities: Distinguishing From Firm Selection, Econometrica, 80, pp. 2543-2594. Ahrend et al (2017)  The Role of Urban Agglomerations for Economic and Productivity GrowthInternational Productivity Monitor,  32, pp. 161-179.

[5] Ahrend, R., et al. (2014) What Makes Cities More Productive? Evidence on the Role of Urban Governance from Five OECD Countries, OECD Regional Development Working Papers, No. 2014/05, OECD Publishing, Paris. OECD (2020) The Spatial Dimension of Productivity: Connecting the Dots across Industries, Firms and Places,  OECD Regional Development Working Papers 2020/1, Paris: OECD.

[6] For a comprehensive study of the productivity performance of British cities over the past half century, see Martin, R., Gardiner, B., Evenhuis, E., Sunley,P. and Tyler, P. (2018) The City Dimension of the Productivity Puzzle, Journal of Economic Geography, 18,  pp. 539-570.

[7] Nor does the spatial agglomeration or clustering of individual firms in the same or related industries necessarily increase their productivity, another conventional wisdom in the business and economics literatures (see  Harris, R. Sunley, P., Evenhuis, E., Martin,, R. and Pike, A.(2019)Does Spatial Proximity Raise Firm Productivity? Evidence from British Manufacturing, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 12, pp. 467-487

[8] Overman, H., and P. Rice. 2008. Resurgent cities and regional economic performance. SERC Policy Paper 1, London School of Economics.

[9] Brakman, S., Garretsen, H. and Marrewijk, C. (2019) An Introduction to Geographical and Urban and Economics: A Spiky World, Cambridge: CUP.

[10] P. Krugman (2006) The Self-organising Economy, Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.

[11] For an interesting analysis of how decoupled London has become from the rest of the UK economy, see Deutsche Bank (2013) London and the UK economy: In for a penny, in for a pound? Special Report, Deutsche Bank Markets Research, London.

[12] As Vince Cable, when Secretary of State for Business in the Coalition Government of 2010, put it: “One of the big problems that we have at the moment… is that London is becoming a kind of giant suction machine, draining the life out of the rest of the country.” (Cable, V. 2013, London draining life out of rest of country). Cable was in fact merely echoing a similar view expressed 75 years earlier by the famous Barlow Commission report on rebalancing Britain’s economy: “The contribution in one area of such a large proportion of the national population as is contained in Greater London, and the attraction to the Metropolis of the best industrial, financial, commercial and general ability, represents a serious drain on the rest of the country” (Barlow Commission, 1940, Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

[13] Martin, R. L. and Gardiner, B. (2017) Reviving the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and Spatially Rebalancing the British Economy: The Scale of the Challenge, in Berry, C. and Giovannini, A. (Eds) Developing England’s North: The Political Economy of the Northern Powerhouse, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 23-58.

Ron Martin is Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Cambridge.

Other posts from the blogged conference:

The Institutionalization of Regional Science  In the Shadow of Economics by Anthony Rebours

Cities and Space: Towards a History of ‘Urban Economics’, by Beatrice Cherrier & Anthony Rebours

Economists in the City: Reconsidering the History of Urban Policy Expertise: An Introduction, by Mike Kenny & Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Citizen Science in a Pandemic: A Fleeting Moment or New Normal? 804 521 Hannah Baker

Citizen Science in a Pandemic: A Fleeting Moment or New Normal?

Text by Katie Cohen.

The current pandemic has in many ways brought the world to a sudden halt. Across the globe many are unable to work, children can’t go to school and the ways in which we used to socialise are no longer safe. Instead, we are trying to engage with the outside world while staying socially distanced from it. One interesting and unintended consequence of this drastic change to our daily lives has been an increase in people’s engagement with citizen science.

Since the end of March when the UK and most countries across the globe went into lockdown, citizen science platforms such as Zooniverse and SciStarter have seen a surge in projects, apps, and participant activity. Zooniverse, for instance, reported that 200,000 participants contributed over 5 million classifications, the equivalent of approximately 48 years of research in one week alone. It seems that teachers, students and even researchers have jumped at the opportunity to receive help with homeschooling and contribute to research programmes. Old and new platforms for citizen scientists have also received increased media coverage, with one plug from The Conversation to ‘Ditch the news cycle—engage, gain skills and make a difference’ and a call for ‘anyone itching for a bit of escapism’ to try citizen science in the Guardian.

This heightened engagement with citizen science has also extended to new projects related to Covid-19 as people are clearly eager to help tackle the global crisis. During this period of piqued interest in citizen science, I want to not only take a closer look at the types of activities that are emerging and expanding but also reflect on the relationship between citizen scientists, experts and policymakers in our pre-and post-pandemic world. What makes this present moment unique and what lessons might it bring to bear on future collaborations between these three groups? Are efforts to engage citizens in tackling the virus harnessing people’s interest to further science as it is practiced, framed and understood by experts? Are the citizen science experiments emerging during this time democratising and pluralising science? I am interested in how the current flux in citizen engagement with science may persist beyond lockdown, but I will also consider how top-down science and decision-making processes still seem to foreground participatory efforts to tackle Covid-19.

How are citizen scientists contributing to Covid-19 research?

Covid-19 presents an especially interesting policy problem because it relies so heavily on population data and mutual trust between citizens, experts and decision-makers. This problem, while not altogether unique, seems to have contributed to the pronounced effort to utilise citizen science approaches for tackling Covid-19. During this period of uncertainty and isolation, logging symptoms, mental health impacts and tracking movement has not only helped experts and policymakers better understand the course of the pandemic but has also given participants a sense of agency. Helpful lists such as the Citizen Science Association’s Covid-19 resources have made it simpler to discover ways to engage and the participation rates reflect an eagerness to do so.

The BBC Pandemic App foreshadowed the types of citizen science efforts we have seen emerge since the spread of Covid-19 began. A project which ran from September 2017 to December 2018, BBC Pandemic was the largest citizen science experiment of its kind and aimed to help researchers better understand how infectious diseases like the flu can spread in order to prepare for the next pandemic outbreak. Participants furthered this mission by contributing data about their travel patterns and interactions. With this data the researchers involved were able to simulate the spread of a highly infectious flu across the UK, and the database is listed as one of the models supporting the government’s response to Covid-19 on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) website.

Over two years after the study’s conclusion, institutions around the world scrambled to initiate similar studies to better understand the novel coronavirus. The Covid Symptom Tracker has proven the most widespread citizen science effort to track Covid-19 in the UK. Professor of Genetic Epidemiology Tim Spector from King’s College London originally teamed up with technologists Jonathan Wolf and George Hadjigeorgiou to launch a startup called ZOE, which conducted studies on twins and nutrition. When coronavirus hit the UK, the ZOE team acted ‘with a sense of extreme urgency’ to adapt the app to track coronavirus symptoms. The app went live on Tuesday 24 March and by the next day had over one million downloads in Britain. A collaboration between NHS England and researchers at King’s College London, the app was also endorsed by the Welsh Government, NHS Wales, the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland. At the core, however, it is a large scale effort to gather data to be analysed by researchers and then delivered to the NHS and policymakers to make informed decisions.

Geographical spread of participants reporting their status as of 26 March 2020. Data source:

Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, University of California, San Francisco’s (UCSF) COVID-19 Citizen Science (CCS) has also empowered users to share in the fight against the virus. Popping up in Facebook and Instagram advertisements, the mobile health study has garnered support from people around the world (see map below). The app also offers the option for participants to provide nearly continuous GPS data and potentially additional health data, such as body temperature, exercise, weight and sleep. In late April, Northwestern University and the American Lung Association announced they would be partnering with UCSF in an effort to increase the number of participants and improve chances of generating useful results. The investigators have also more recently invited citizen scientists to submit their own research questions. Receiving more than two thousand ideas, they will soon add these participants’ questions one at a time to the study’s survey.

Global Citizen Scientists
Points representing CCS participants worldwide. Data source: Covid-19 Eureka platform.

Other citizen science experiments have engaged users more actively in Covid-19 research. For instance, researchers at the University of Washington have used a free computer game Foldit as a platform for citizen scientists to contribute to Covid-19 drug discovery efforts. Developed at the University in 2008, Foldit has previously been used to help scientists in cancer and Alzheimer’s research, but has now seen a pronounced increase in activity since the Covid-19 outbreak. Although it is US-based, the programme has gained traction more widely with the help of promotion by EU-Citizen.Science, and participants across the globe are competing to solve protein puzzles online. Tasked with designing proteins digitally that could attach to Covid-19 and block its entry into cells, participants are aiding the development of antiviral drugs that could ameliorate patients’ symptoms. Researchers involved have found crowdsourcing a helpful tool because of the creativity each person brings to the task.

The 99 most promising of the 20,000 potential Covid-19 antiviral proteins generated by citizen scientists through Foldit that University of Washington researchers plan to test in the lab.

A new EU initiative has also invited citizens ‘to take an active role in research, innovation and the development of evidence-based policy on a range of coronavirus-related projects.‘ Supporting a range of citizen science and crowdsourcing programmes, the platform is significant in its broad endorsement of citizen scientists’ contributions not only to research efforts but also to the policy process. Advocating for use of another symptom reporting tool Flusurvey, developed at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and monitored by Public Health England (PHE), the platform is helping to boost responses to existing citizen science efforts as well as publicize the benefits of citizen science approaches more generally.

Closer to home, Cambridge Judge Business School students organised a University-wide 72-hour virtual hackathon #CAMvsCOVID on the weekend 1 – 4 May 2020: ‘One global challenge. One weekend. Your solutions.’ Teams were tasked with drafting ‘a novel response to a pressing problem in the battle against COVID-19,’ with the explicit brief that even coded solutions must consider the societal context. This solutions-focused approach to crowdsourcing harnessed the creativity of the Cambridge ecosystem in a way that other experiments have not; participants were empowered not only to gather data and contribute their research skills, but also to generate potential policy proposals for review. We do not yet know what will come of the ideas generated through this exercise, but it will be interesting to see what comes next.

In what ways does citizen science in a pandemic look different?

Social isolation has prompted many to engage with citizen science who otherwise would not have done so in the past. The urgency of the problem and scale of disruption has set Covid-19 apart from other policy problems with which citizen scientists might generally engage. However, it seems to present a timely opportunity to think about who holds relevant knowledge for public policy and how different forms of knowledge are shared in tackling policy problems.

Despite the complexity of every policy decision made over the past three months, most of us can agree that saving lives and returning to a sense of normalcy were top priorities at the start of lockdown. This unification of goals seems to have set the citizen science experiments detailed above apart from others of their kind. While environmental citizen science programmes covering questions on climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss are areas with the largest growth in citizen science over the past decade, they have also presented challenges. Lack of urgency, competing priorities, differing lived experiences and sources of information often create conflicting desires between, say, bird monitoring volunteers and members of the European Council on conservation efforts.

With the outbreak of Covid-19, most agreed we needed to track the virus, understand the science better, develop approaches to containing its spread, support the health system and discover treatments and vaccines to combat it in the future. There was a strong sense of urgency, priorities were more aligned, we recognised these were unprecedented times and there may also have been a greater desire to learn from each other. Though epidemiologists have different knowledge and experience than participants inputting symptoms into an app and both differ from that of policymakers charged with making decisions on behalf of their constituents, these differences seem to have been largely outweighed by the alignment of goals and priorities. Although this has continued to evolve throughout lockdown, these initial conditions enabled greater cooperation and manifested in a proliferation of citizen science experiments.

Differing experiences, information and agendas also breed mistrust, which too often impedes successful collaboration between citizen scientists, experts and policymakers. Can citizen scientists ensure their contributions will be used in their best interest? Will their voices be included in the decision-making process? Can experts and policymakers ensure citizens provide unbiased, accurate data? The global priority to fight the virus from the outset seemed to unify those opting to engage as citizen scientists. The magnitude, scale and consequences of Covid-19 potentially bred a mutual dependence and, in some cases, deference between citizens, research and policy. Amassing data and securing help is crucial for governments and scientists to meet expectations, and citizen scientists will better help themselves by providing accurate and constructive contributions. Trust in the value of citizen science may have been born out of obligation rather than desire during the pandemic, but it is seemingly there.

However, desire and obligation were bound to shift as we moved forward. As Elizabeth Anderson commented in her expert bite with the Expertise Under Pressure Team the issue of trust does not disappear in the context of Covid-19. Trust in shared motives and goals has wavered increasingly as lockdown extends and restlessness grows, and we have yet to find out the consequences of this shift for citizen science.

What does the future hold for citizen science post-pandemic?

As our daily lives gradually come to look more and more like they did before Covid-19, will interest in citizen science dwindle too? There’s no way to know for sure, but I think many will agree that our lives are unlikely to pick up where they left off and the impacts of the pandemic will linger long after the number of cases falls to zero. Although we may in fact be living through a fleeting flux in citizen engagement with science, here are some thoughts on why it may persist:

Support: This new wave of citizen science has clearly seen increased involvement and support of governments, medical institutions and charities involved in the fight against Covid-19. The timing of the launch of EU-Citizen.Science this year has also by no means been a negligible development, as the platform has served to support Covid-19 related citizen science efforts as well as share insights about the potential for citizen science. Although the initiative was set in motion prior to the outbreak, it has been ignited by interest in tackling Covid-19 and could sustain those audiences long after it ends.

Breaking the ice: Motivation to help, extra time and even boredom may be contributing to the increase in citizen scientists’ participation. Desperation and pressure might have caused policymakers to become more open to citizen engagement. However, maybe the unusual circumstances under which the shift occurred are less important than the shift itself. 

Funding: The announcement of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) new £1.5 million Citizen science collaboration grant is another lockdown development that could help shape future directions in citizen science. Funding has long been a barrier to the field. Perhaps the successes of Covid-19 initiatives will prompt more serious consideration of its merits and continue to provide a case for support.

Whether or not increased citizen engagement with science continues beyond lockdown, the nature of more open knowledge sharing between citizen scientists, experts and policymakers during the pandemic is also important to consider. Although we have seen increased trust, cooperation and collaboration, the parameters of scientific inquiry and policy agendas have still largely been set by academic institutions and governments. Rather than enabling citizens to provoke science as usual or express political agency as some forms of citizen science do, the Covid-19 experiments outlined in this blog have predominantly provided platforms for participants to contribute their knowledge to expert-led programmes. The proliferation of participatory initiatives may help to pave the way for more dynamic and experimental citizen science in the future, but perhaps this more fundamental shift in how citizen scientists, experts and policymakers share knowledge is still in the making.

Katie Cohen is a Research Assistant for the Expertise Under Pressure project at CRASSH and at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).

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Economists in the City #4 870 546 Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #4

The Institutionalization of Regional Science

In the Shadow of Economics

by Anthony Rebours

The history of regional science offers an interesting case study, as well as a one of the few examples, of the institutionalization of an entirely new scientific field in the years after 1945.  Its foundation by Walter Isard and a group of social scientists in the 1950s represents the most institutionalized attempt to stimulate the relationship  between economics and geography. The original project of Isard, who was trained as an economist at Harvard, was to promote the study of location and regional problems.

And at the outset, regional science was, in various ways, a success. It attracted many scholars from different disciplines, mostly economics, geography and urban/regional planning, and it quickly became institutionalized formally through the foundation of the Regional Science Association (RSA) in 1954 and establishment of a Regional Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania in 1958. At the same time, the creation of the Papers and Proceedings of The Regional Science Association in 1955 and of the Journal of Regional Science in 1958, offered new publication venues for scholars interested in location analysis, in particular quantitative geographers who found it difficult to publish in traditional geography journals. Within economics, regional science influenced analytical works in urban economics, as, for instance, William Alonso’s thesis, widely recognized as one of the foundational works of urban economics, was written at Penn under the supervision of Isard in 1960.

However, the prevailing processes of knowledge production and evaluation which shaped the emergence of this new field were deeply influenced by economics. Geographers became dissatisfied with Isard’s vision of the hierarchical division between geographers and economists, and the primacy given to economic theorizing and modelling as the core of the new regional science. Thus, the social organization of the field of regional science and its interactions with other disciplines mirrored the particularity of economics, a hierarchical discipline organized around a strong theoretical core and an insularity from the rest of social sciences. In this short article, I discuss the findings of an analysis I have conducted of the contents of the main journal for the field – Journal of Regional Science –and associated archival materials, in order to shed light on the ways in which this field was institutionalized.

The emergence of regional science as a field of study

Regional science emerged in a particularly favourable context. In the US, the impetus for studies about regional development which began during the 1930s, supported by the success of the Tennessee Valley Authority program, persisted after the war. The Second World War and the ensuing Cold War provided new opportunities for the development of scientific research with an unprecedented increase in funding, student enrolment and collaboration between academics and external bodies, such as military institutions. This period confirmed economists’ aspirations to be treated as scientists, and resulted in the increasing prevalence of statistical methods and mathematical modelling, and the accompanying theory of rational and maximizing agents.

In 1942, Walter Isard obtained his doctoral degree under the supervision of Alvin Hansen, who was attached to the National Resources Planning Board, and Abbott Usher, who taught him about the  German tradition of location analysis, at the Economics Department of Harvard. There, and during a graduate fellowship at Chicago, he encountered other leading economists, such as Edward Chamberlin, Joseph Schumpeter, Jacob Viner, Frank Knight and Oscar Lange. At the end of the war, Isard produced a series of research articles in which he offered conventional economic analysis of production costs about the regional implications of the development of the airline industry, the atomic energy industry, and the future location of the iron and steel industry. At the time, these industries were considered as particularly important for national security and economic development.

In the late 1940s, Isard became increasingly concerned about the lack of interest among economists in the location of economic activities. His perception of the subject was not really different to his colleagues, but he wanted to improve the theory they used, which, following the British tradition of the late 19th century, suffered from a lack of spatial dimension. He did not seek to challenge the general equilibrium economic theory that was becoming dominant, but sought instead to integrate a spatial aspect within it.  

In the late 1940s, he started to be more active in the promotion of location analysis but failed to convince the American Economic Association (AEA) to organize sessions on regional topics at the annual conventions. In 1949 Isard was recruited to Harvard by Wassily Leontief to develop an input-output approach to regional development. During the war, input-output analysis received much attention because it enabled the American Air Force to identify the best targets for bombing. As a consequence, Leontief had received large research funds to develop his input-output framework. Drawing on Leontief’s financial resources, Isard was able to organize a series of multi-disciplinary sessions on regional research at meetings of various social science associations between 1950 and 1954. An informal newsletter was also created to disseminate the discussions and papers presented at the meetings.  

In 1949, at Harvard, Leontief also persuaded the faculty to create a new course on location theory at the Economics Department in which Isard would teach. During the course, he promoted the same kind of research he was doing at the Leontief project and that he would continue to conduct and support after having established formerly regional science. In a context where there was a large influx of war veterans returning to Harvard to complete their graduate studies, Isard managed to gather around him a core of young scholars to contribute to this work.  

The institutionalization of regional science

In 1954, after four years of informal meetings and discussions, the Regional Science Association was officially created during a meeting held conjointly with the American Economic Association and the American Social Sciences Association this time. Sixty participants from different disciplines—economics, geography and planning being the largest — as well as organisations like the RAND Corporation and Resources For the Future, were present. The papers presented were published in the first issue of The Papers and Proceedings of the Regional Science Association which was established at the same time. In 1956, Isard opened the first PhD program in regional science at the Penn’s Wharton School, and, in 1958, the first Department of Regional Science. The same year, the Journal of Regional Science, the future leading journal of the field, was founded.

These events were key to the institutionalization of the field, and reflected the thinking of Isard and his colleagues about the main focus and boundaries of regional science. This reflected an amalgam of diverse approaches to the study of regional and spatial issues, drawing on different disciplines, in particular economics and geography, with a strong emphasis on the same kind of analytical and statistical methods he learned at Harvard and from his work with Leontief.

In what follows, I look more closely at the constituent parts of the new discipline.

Figure 1. Journal co-citation network 1958-1967 (2 or more co-citation links), the size of the nodes and links being proportional to the number of links. Source Web of Science.

The centrality of economics for regional science is clearly visible in Figure 1, which maps the network of co-citations for articles published in the Journal of Regional Science (JRS) between 1958 and 1967. The co-citation technique allows us to measure the conceptual proximity of different journals cited in different papers of JRS. This technique is complemented by the use of a community detection algorithm in order to identify coherent sub-groups that have stronger links with each other than with the rest of the journals. The most striking feature of this mapping is the distance and the net distinction between economics journals and geography journals. While some leading journals such as the Geographical Review and the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, were among the most cited in the network (respectively the fourth and fifth most cited), geography journals occupied a peripheral position, along with journals of other disciplines like sociology (green). More surprising is the relative prominence of psychology journals (blue) which were more strongly associated with economics journals (purple) and represented the second most cited discipline of the period. However, in the next decade the situation completely changed, and psychology journals received less than 1% of the total citations in 1968–1977 (Table 1). For the whole period, 1958 to 1977, the geography is the second most cited discipline but with only 13,4% of the total citations of the period, far behind economics with 55,2% of the citations.

Table 1. Disciplines cited in the Journal of Regional Science (two percent of citations or more). Source Web of Science, using the National Science Foundation disciplinary categorization of journals.

This first result is consistent with the idea, expressed by Isard in Location and Space-Economy (1956), of a hierarchical division between economists, who provided the analytical foundations of regional science, and the geographers, who provided the empirical facts and testing. Another way to confirm this asymmetrical relationship between economics and geography is to compare the most cited disciplines (Table 1) with the disciplines that cited the most JRS (Table 2). While geography journals were by far the ones cited most in the JRS, with 44,1% of the total citations, they only received 10,7% of the citations within it. At the same time, economics journals, which represented only 12,6% of the total citations to the JRS, were the most cited,  41,5%. Regional science, thus, was more important for geographers than economists, while the reverse was not true as economics was more important for regional scientists than geography. This result is also consistent with the idea that the quantitative turn in geography and the emergence of regional science were closely associated.

Table 2. Disciplines citing the Journal of Regional Science (two percent of citations or more). Source Web of Science, using the National Science Foundation disciplinary categorization of journals.

These trends persisted in the next period (1968–1977). The size of the network in Figure 2 is representative of the increase of publications of the JRS during the period, with an increase in issues per years after 1969. The separation between the cluster of economics journals and geography journals persisted. Moreover, and despite an increase of the proportion of citations to geography journals, economics became even more important in the network and accentuated the difference of size with geography (Table 1). On the other hand, regional science became even more important for geography as the discipline represented 50% of the citations to JRS in the period, while it also received more citations from economics journals in this period than in the preceding one (Table 2). More generally, the data show that economics and geography were the two most important disciplines for the authors who published in the JRS between 1958 and 1977, a trend that has continued after 1967.

Figure 2. Journal co-citation network 1968-1977 (4 or more co-citation links), the size of the nodes and links being proportional to the number of links. Source Web of Science.

The fact that the JRS was much less quoted by economics journals doesn’t mean that it was completely ignored by economists as, in fact, the JRS was among the most cited economic journals in 1970. However, it shows that regional science was more discussed by scholars publishing in geography journals than economics. As already indicated, this situation is certainly related to the dynamics of both disciplines at the time. While, the identity of economics was legitimated and reinforced by its success during the war, in geography, there was an increasing dissatisfaction with the regional geography approach that dominated the field in the1950s. The Cold War context facilitated the promotion of a new generation of quantitative geographers looking for more scientific methods. Most of them were early members of the Regional Science Association, and as Brian Berry, were interested in the potential of regional science to transform geography. On the other hand, the stronger identity of economists meant that when they associated with other scholars, they were inclined to retain their own frameworks and methods, as Walter Isard did for regional science. However, by the mid-1970s, regional science experienced a progressive decline when geographers started to distance themselves from the analytical methods that were promoted by Isard. But even after the Regional Science Department at Penn closed its doors in 1993, regional science journals remained a going concern and continued to promote studies of spatial issues notably from urban economics and, after 1991, New Economic Geography.

Anthony Rebours is currently a graduate student at University Paris 8 and a young fellow of the Center for the History of Political Economy (CHOPE) at Duke University. His dissertation deals with the relationships between economics and neighbouring disciplines such as geography and regional science. It combines archival work and sociological methods for quantitative history.

Other posts from the blogged conference:

Cities and Space: Towards a History of ‘Urban Economics’, by Beatrice Cherrier & Anthony Rebours

Economists in the City: Reconsidering the History of Urban Policy Expertise: An Introduction, by Mike Kenny & Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Mask or No Mask? A look at UK’s policy over time. 400 267 Hannah Baker

Mask or No Mask? A look at UK’s policy over time.

Text by EuP’s co-investigator Dr Emily So assisted by research associate Dr Hannah Baker.

I was born and raised in Hong Kong. During the Covid-19 pandemic, my friends and family have told me that if you don’t wear a face mask/covering, you are the odd one out. Vending machines selling disposable face masks are common and the government has issued every resident with a reusable face mask. Many countries and cities around the world have followed suit.

There is a rich history of face masks and its origins. In Asian cultures, masks are respected as the social norm. You wear one when you are ill to keep your germs from passing onto others. Yet in the UK, where I now live, donning a face mask attracts public attention in the opposite way, that somehow the wearer has succumbed to fear and is wearing a mask to protect themselves. The debate over in western societies since the pandemic has revolved around the ability of masks to stop transmission of and protect the wearer from potentially viral airborne particles. 

By wearing a face mask, are we keeping the germs in or out?

In this short blog, I am not going to embark on a “to wear or not to wear” debate as I have no credentials to argue for either side and will leave Professor Patricia Greenhalgh and Professor Graham Martin to battle it out in the ring. What I am interested in is the timeline of advice on face masks in the UK and what has contributed to its current policy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic on the 11th March.  The first piece of advice I received about face masks from an expert on the BBC was on the 13th March where Dr Shunmay Yang from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explained if masks really protected people from contracting the virus. Her stance and the one of the UK government at the time was that face masks should be reserved for healthcare workers and those who are already infected. Looking back through the newspaper archives, when interviewed on the BBC the day before, Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, highlighted that risks of catching the infection could be increased due to the incorrect use and disposal of masks and

because of these behavioural issues, people can adversely put themselves at more risk than less.”

Dr Jenny Harries, BBC interview, 12th March 2020

Tracking the pieces of advice since then from experts such as Dr Yang and the government, based on the science from Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), we found the following:

Mid-March to end of MarchPanic buying was rife  as rumours spread of an imminent national lockdown. Face masks were on the list of items in high demand and there were reports of opportunists taking advantage of the situation with fake Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other Covid-19 related supplies.  Worried about the scarcity of supplies to key healthcare workers, the Government reiterated their advice to the public and stressed that wearing a face mask is not recommended for people with no symptoms.

The UK was put under a strict lockdown on 23rd March.

Early April.  Professor Jonathan Van-Tam reiterated at the daily briefing (4th April) that wearing of face masks by healthy people is not recommended by the Government, he goes on to say that while the practice seemed “‘wired into’ some southeast Asian cultures, there was no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society” He added: “In terms of the hard evidence and what the UK Government recommends, we do not recommend face masks for general wearing by the public.” Social distancing remained the key mitigation strategy for Covid-19.

Echoing the Government’s messages are those from the WHO and experts from the UK, including Professor Bill Keevil, Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Southampton, who when interviewed by the Evening Standard on the 9th April was asked amongst other questions the following two: If I wanted to make my own, would you recommend it? Why are we seeing more people wearing masks? His answers being:

No. It will not protect you.” (but in answer to the first question, there was no mention of whether it could protect others.)

The US government is provoking this new interest in face masks because they have knee-jerked. That is because of the concept of symptomless carriers, who have the virus but do not show any signs of it. So what the US government has done is say: ‘People should wear masks.’ But if people are wearing inappropriate face masks, it is creating a false sense of security.” 

By Mid-April the mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, was urging the Government to reconsider their advice on facemasks, he said that wearing non-medical facial masks, such as a bandana, scarf or reusable mask, would add “another layer of protection” to the public.  His letter to the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says he is lobbying for masks to be worn in circumstances where people cannot keep two metres apart, such as on public transport or while shopping.  Mr Shapps however said it is “not the right moment” to encourage people to wear masks – adding that the Government needs to look at all the evidence.

21st April. SAGE met to discuss the advice on face masks.  The minutes to this meeting were published on the 29th May.

23rd April. SAGE submitted their review stating the evidence is weak.  At a daily briefing, Dr Jenny Harries, said the fact the issue was being debated means “the evidence either isn’t clear or is weak”.

She was also asked to comment on whether face coverings could have an effect on the London underground, where she said it was possible there could be “a very, very small potential beneficial effect in some enclosed environments” but no reference was given. Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, also echoed this and told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “there was no research to support wearing a mask if you were fit and well, and there was even a risk of picking up the infection if people were constantly adjusting it and touching their face.” He goes on to say that “I think the guidance that we’re expecting to hear is that the wearing of face masks is a voluntary activity, not mandated, and it certainly makes a lot of sense to focus limited resources that we have at the moment on those who have greatest need and that’s the health professionals.”

28th April. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, confirmed that a domestic effort has been launched to slow the spread of coronavirus by producing masks that “limit the droplets that each of us might be responsible for“. However, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, “On face masks, we are guided by the science and the UK Government position hasn’t changed, not least because the most important thing people can do is the social distancing… as opposed to the weak science on face masks, there is very clear science on social distancing. That is our absolute priority in terms of the message to the public.” 

Meanwhile, the First Minister of Scotland says Scots over the age of two should wear a cloth covering, such as a scarf or t-shirt, in “an enclosed space where you will come into contact with multiple people and safe social distancing is difficult – for example on public transport or in shops”.  The Scottish Government unveiled its own guidance on this issue, suggesting the voluntary wearing of coverings based on the same evidence and advice from SAGE. Downing Street said the Prime Minister wanted to maintain a UK-wide response to coronavirus as far as possible. 

30th April. Boris Johnson is back at Number 10 chairing the press conference following his stay in hospital and Chequers after contracting Covid- 19: “What I think SAGE is saying, and what I certainly agree with, is that as part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think that face coverings will be useful both for epidemiological reasons but also for giving people confidence they can go back to work” the PM said. The term ‘face coverings’ was used at the Downing Street daily briefings for the first time, a term which sets them apart from medical-quality masks. 

1st May. Ministers have yet to make a final decision on whether the public will be advised to wear face coverings, but the advice from science suggested that they have a weak but also positive effect in reducing transmission from asymptomatic people where physical distancing was not possible. 

4th MayMinisters confirm stockpiling of PPE equipment for healthcare workers and public use.

5th May. A day after PPE was announced, Sir Patrick Vallance told the parliament’s health and social care committee SAGE thinks the evidence on masks preventing the spread of infection from one person to another is “marginal but positive“. 

11th May. Two months after WHO declared a global pandemic, the UK public are urged to wear a face covering if social distancing is not possible. The government’s current (May 2020) guidelines include making a face covering out of an old t-shirt to provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.  

As I review this timeline, two things struck me. The timing of government advice which has been emphasised as “following the science” and the loose use of the word ‘evidence’.  Local Government Minister Simon Clarke told ITV News on the 20th April that the guidance around face masks “remains the same” until a “scientific steer” is given by SAGE. “At the moment this isn’t what is being recommended and therefore it isn’t government policy, we’re prioritising getting material to the frontline. If that advice changes then clearly that is something, we will work to accommodate over the weeks ahead.”  Should the two have been linked – the advice on whether face masks become mandatory of the public based on evidence from science and prioritisation of “getting material to the frontline”?  Does that imply the “scientific steer” is secondary to how much PPE the country can stockpile? 

Given the central role science has taken in this and all other strategic decisions the government has made, it is hard to not feel that the science is politicised and orchestrated at times. To understand why mask guidelines have been so varied, in the US National Public Radio (NPR) reached out to specialists in academia and in government. What they learned was that face mask guidelines are about science — but go beyond. The reasons for a policy may have to do with practical considerations like the national supply of masks but may also reflect cultural values and history.  In Eastern Asian countries, the attitude is perhaps one of “better safe than sorry”, particularly in countries where they had experienced SARS.  

Even though the central arguments and messaging have not changed – not mandatory to wear face masks or coverings in the UK and do not deplete our frontline healthcare workers of PPE, the difficulty in accessing the evidence informing the scientific advice has left me and perhaps many others confused and anxious. In the minutes of the 21st April SAGE meeting it states that evidence (point 10 in the minutes) that exists in marginally positive for the use of masks and RCT (Randomised Clinical Trails) evidence (point 11) is weak and that it would be unreasonable to claim large benefits from wearing a mask. Though evidence was been referred to, these minutes did not form part of the information pack to the public as they were only published on the 29th May.

The Expertise Under Pressure’s Rapid Decisions Under Risk case study spun out of frustration and confusion of where my own professional advice was heading in the field of estimating losses due to natural disasters. I was concerned about accountability but more importantly, I was worried about the impact of science-led advice on the public. By allowing the media to pick and choose what to present to the public, since the evidence used by SAGE has not always been made available, any scientific studies are up to public interpretation and can be taken out of context.  There are many to choose from. Scientific studies exploring the benefits of face coverings in a pandemic would vary in sample size, context and focus.  The phrases ‘randomised trials‘, under ‘medical conditions‘, ‘community settings‘, ‘observational evidence‘ comes to mind. As a member of the public, how do I decipher these terms and what do they mean?  Am I therefore comparing apples and oranges if I try to contrast the arguments based on studies designed with different parameters?

How does a study make the cut to become evidence examined by SAGE?

The image below is taken from a study (preprint) carried out by Aalto University, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the University of Helsinki on a scenario where a person coughs in an aisle between shelves, like those found in supermarkets. This was picked up by most news platforms in the UK, including Sky News and the Daily Mail, and was making its rounds on Twitter and other social media outlets on the 10th April, a month before the official advice on face coverings in public settings was given. Supermarkets in the UK have been urging customers to stay two metres apart while walking down aisles, with long queues seen in car parks around the country as staff limit the number of shoppers entering the store at any given time.  However, the finding from this study that “deadly coronavirus droplets can spread across two supermarket aisles and infect shoppers, with the bug hanging in the air for several minutes.” has never been addressed officially.

A 3D model shows how particles can spread when a person coughs in a supermarket. Credit: Mikko Auvinen and Antti Hellsten from Finnish Meteorological Institute and AALTO/FMI/UH/VTT/CSC consortium 

With reference to this issue on face coverings, what is the difference between weak and marginal but positive evidence, hence tipping the advice to the public from not wearing to wearing face coverings.  Was it more than just scientific evidence?

This pandemic will test the role of science and scientists in the management of a national and global challenge. There are growing concerns of the independence of advice and some scientists have broken rank and spoken out about the policies supposedly “following the science”. Given Covid-19 is a new virus and a highly contagious and mutating disease, one can be forgiven for being cautious, and a shifting policy based on changing data is expected.  However, the dithering and conflicting (with other countries and even with other nations in the United Kingdom) guidance on face coverings and other issues can only in my opinion harm the trust of the public in science and experts, if the cause of the shifts in strategies are not explained.  In early May, a survey conducted by the Open Knowledge Foundation  found that public trust in science has increased following the pandemic but that transparency is key. They found in the Survation (surveying the nation) poll that people are more likely to listen to expert advice from scientists and researchers, if data is openly available for checking and 97% believe it is important that Covid-19 data is openly available for people to check.

Constructive debate of risks and benefits is essential for any national intervention.  We all need to be prepared to modify our views.  However, open disputes can lead to public distrust and confusion.  We as scientists must think of the common good and duty of care to the audience, even though it is the responsibility of the politicians to make the final decisions. As remarked by Professor Trish Greenhalgh “I conclude by thanking my academic adversaries for the intellectual sparring match, but exhort them to remember our professional accountability to a society in crisis.”  The only way to be accountable is to be as transparent as possible, to offer and take time to explain the scientific evidence, the imperfect and ever-changing nature of evidence.  Perhaps the way to examine the guidance on “to mask or not is one of precautionary science rather than absolute.

To conclude, there are three main arguments presented here. The first one is that the question about whether masks protect and who they protect is partly cultural because it relies on assumptions about people’s behaviour. The reticence of UK scientists seems to be driven by their sense of how we as a nation would behave with masks, and they will only consider their health effects after some assurance of compliance. But we have all had to change our behaviours for Covid-19, so why would this be one step too far?  The second is that the official advisors are not systematic in the sort of evidence they attend to, in particular they approach the question in an individualist way (will it save me?) instead of a broader communal way (would a community that wears masks be safer?). Lastly, my impression is that the scientific advisors are demanding much too high of a standard of evidence than is warranted by the current situation. The Precautionary Principle seems to argue that masks should be recommended even if the case for adopting them is not 100% watertight. Their cautious approach is also inconsistent since other highly uncertain strategies have been adopted, yet masks remain contentious.

I cannot help but wonder if face coverings would be more common and acceptable if the UK government had made it part of their public health requirement early on.  Afterall, this is a small behavioural change that at a communal level could have an impact on slowing the spread. I for one will be donning a mask to keep my own germs in.

End note (added 18:30 4th June): Since the publication of this blog earlier today it has been announced that face coverings will be mandatory on public transport in England from the 15 June – showing a further development in the UK’s changing policy on this issue

Thumbnail image source: Nickolay Romensky –

Disclaimer: Published 4th June 2020. Every effort has been made to scour through the numerous Government websites and reports, relevant papers and stories from the UK media about face coverings over the past two months by myself and my research associate Dr Hannah Baker. However, the author acknowledges there will be key pieces of information she would have missed. This blogpost are her own personal reflections and hers alone.