Using evidence and data to tackle public challenges

Tea and Talk with the RSE
Tea and Talk with the RSE
Using evidence and data to tackle public challenges

In Episode 5, hear from Professor Niamh Nic Daéid about using the learning from the Covid-19 pandemic to enhance Scotland’s ability to effectively utilise data, evidence, and science in preparing for and responding to future challenges. 

Professor Nic Daéid is Director at the award-winning Leverhulme research centre for forensic science at the University of Dundee and an authorised forensic chemist working on areas as diverse as fire investigation, clandestine drug chemistry, and explosives.

A member of the RSE’s Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission, Niamh chairs its working group on Data, Evidence and Science.

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Episode transcription

Please note transcriptions are automatically generated so may feature errors.

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the RSEs Tea & Talk podcast series, a program inspired by the coffee houses of the 18th century, where great thinkers would come together to discuss ideas and matters of the day. I’m Rebekah Widdowfield and I’m chief executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which is Scotland’s National Academy.

Our mission is to advance learning and make knowledge useful. And as part of that in this series, I’ll be speaking with some of Scotland’s leading authorities on the impact of Covid-19. The conversations are with Fellows and with members of the RSEs post Covid futures commission, we’re keen to share their expertise and experience.

You can find out more about this work at, or follow us on Twitter @news_RSE

Today, I’m speaking with Professor Niamh Nic Daeid about how we can use learning from the Covid-19 pandemic to enhance Scotland’s ability to effectively utilise data, evidence, and science in preparing for and responding to future challenges. 

Professor Nic Daeid is director at the award-winning Leverhulme research centre for forensic science at the University of Dundee and an authorised forensic chemist working on areas as diverse as fire investigation, clandestine drug chemistry, and explosives. A member of RSE’s post-Covid Futures Commission, Niamh chairs its working group on Data, Evidence and Science. So, who better to speak with us on this important topic?

Niamh as Director of the Leverhulme research centre for forensic science, an important objective for you is about promoting a good understanding of science among the public.

I mean, overall, how successful do you think that the Scottish and UK governments have been at presenting scientific information on Covid or on the response to it? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:01:51] I think it’s all a bit mixed too, to be perfectly honest about it. I think the, the initial, information that was presented to us, when the Covid pandemic really began to take hold in the UK and in March, and when we were all facing that initial period of national lockdown, I thought that the communication was actually pretty good.

And I thought that it was, it was quite clear. And the messaging that was used was clear and precise to a large extent. We all knew what was being asked of us, what we have to do and the importance of why we need to comply with the requirements that our government… it really imposed upon us, but did so out of an extreme necessity.

So, I thought the initial stages of that communication were good. When you look at how it was done and you begin to contrast actually the styles of the different governmental leaders across the four nations, it became really different and diverse. And I thought that was a very interesting development.

So, you had in Scotland, the first minister of Scotland giving a briefing every day at noon, everybody knew that was happening, everybody tuned in. What I thought she did that was a standout for me, was that she had a signer with her. She had somebody behind her that signed everything. So immediately there was responsiveness to the diversity of the community she was trying to speak with.

And I thought that was really clever, not clever in a ‘clever’ sense, but it was clever because it involved us all. It meant that that government was signalling the fact that it’s not just speaking to one section of society, but to try to speak to all of society. And I thought that was very important to do it, and I thought it was done very well.

Indeed. and then some of the other, devolved, devolved, governments followed suit, they had their own press conferences. and, and they followed suit. I think the Welsh woman under Northern Ireland, But the UK government, our prime minister still doesn’t tell the signer when he gives his press briefings.

And so you began to see, I think, a different approach to how government, government centrally, and then government and the developed, areas began to try to communicate. I think as things moved on, that communication wasn’t so good on. I think having, changing and I, and I almost, in some places, a dilution of the message, because.

I suspect if I walked out now out of my house and I asked the first man on the street or woman on the street that I find, what tier are we in? And what does it mean? And what are we supposed to do? I would get some people scratching their heads because we were confused and now the messages, and it’s no longer singular.

I understand why they’ve done that. But I think as this continues, that singularity of message was the thing that at the beginning was, was so important. So importantly done and done very well. Whereas I think it’s become diffused complicated now. I 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:04:56] mean, that’s, that’s interesting in terms of, you know, how you, and so sort of more nuanced approach in terms of action on the ground with that wish for a singularity of, of communication.

And we’ve seen that in the debate just last night, down South in the house of commons, about some of the, some MPs wanting a sort of smaller scale, approach to Covid. I mean, are there particular ways you think that could be balance that, and it’s a bit better. 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:05:21] It’s a really good question.

It’s a, it’s a, I think that the balancing of this is really, tricky, because you want people to trust what you’re saying, to, to comply when they need to comply. And I think getting that balance right is, is a difficult one because the, the, those that are sending the message are, are. Trying to get the message across in a way such that people will come with them and they will trust the advice that they’re getting, and they will follow the advice that they’re getting.

and I think as, as the pandemic has, has, you know, as we’ve been in this process now for nearly 10 months, and we’re facing the challenge of Christmas coming and what are we all going to do about that? getting this, this balancing act of clear and acceptable and palatable information. And then on the flip side of it, media reporting and indeed other reporting and rightly so of the, of the increasing consequences of what our current situation is doing both to our economy, to our mental health, to our physical health.

it’s, it’s trying to keep convincing people that actually it is really important. We follow some of this advice. And keeping them with you. And I think again, across the devolved governments, some have been better at doing that than others. And if you look at the model of, for example, New Zealand and lots of people who visit on the opposite as a, as a good model for how you do clear and effective communication.

And a lot of that, I think in the early stages was about making that. not just intellectual, connection with the people you’re talking to, but making an emotional connection with them as well. And to say, look, we are actually all in this together, and it’s only by being in it together and going through it together that we’re going to come out the other end of it.

And I think, again, looking across the devolved governance, some have been much better at doing that and having that empathy than others. And I think we’re going to need it increasingly. As people get really worried about their futures now. 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:07:21] I think what you sort of pointed to there is a real sort of, there’s actually a real complexity around communicating effectively that yes, there’s something about the facts and the hard science I can put it in that way, but you also need to think about these wider issues about how that information might be received.

I mean, one of the things I imagined was really difficult for governments in the early days of the pandemic in particular, it was just. The uncertainty around coronavirus and the effectiveness of potential responses. I mean, for example, you can look back at what was being said at FA about face masks very early on.

And, and that’s obviously quite difficult when you’re using evidence to inform people’s behaviours or sometimes direct them, or they’re going to have consequences for individual businesses. So how can that kind of uncertainty do you think be communicated. Effectively and without losing the confidence of the public in government or indeed in the scientific community, 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:08:12] it’s a real challenge for scientists.

We, science is about understanding the world around us. It’s about gathering data information, and it’s about making, building knowledge out of that, that, that basis of data. But of course, the more data you gather, the more you learn, the more you learn, the more your view might change. And so. Science is all about that, that sort of journey of discovery, pinning scientists down and saying, give me a yes or a no answer to this question makes us incredibly uncomfortable because we’re not, we don’t want to, because we don’t want to.

We can’t be that certain, in the early stages of something else as impactful and important and, potentially, with the potential ramifications of something like a serious pandemic that we’re facing or that we’re currently living in, the challenges of that throws up. I think for scientists that makes us really uncomfortable because we don’t have all the answers and we become more and more comfortable, the less data that we’ve got.

So in the early stages, you’re absolutely right in the early stages. And we didn’t have an awful lot of information about this. And what we were doing was we were using, data that we had from other. Significant, viral, events like, you know, people, a lot of people talk about Spanish flu. A lot of people talk about other types of, of influenza and Covid type, viruses or, or, or others Sauers, Mars, all of these to try to use them potentially as ways of saying, look, this is how these things might spread.

as we started to gain more knowledge and more data, I think that the, the scientists became a little bit more comfortable, but the nature of what they’re being asked to do is one that is inherently uncomfortable for us. And I think the real challenge here is around, enabling people to, to both understand.

The complexity of the situation, but also to understand that the scientists are not going to be able to give you a certain answer or an answer with certainty, it’s probably a better way of putting it. and so we will always caveat things in probabilities or impossibilities or in chances. and people don’t want that.

Because our policy makers and particularly, I think are the people that are standing out in front of, or behind those podiums, speaking to everybody on the news up there, five o’clock briefing on their 12 o’clock briefing. Want to be trying to give a really clear message. So there’s a real. conflict or not conflict is perhaps not the right word, but there’s a real push and pull here where the scientists are, or, or really cautious and a caveat, everything around that caution and rightly so in my view, and the people that have to deliver the message, you need a certainty because in their view, The public need is certainty and what’s the solution to it.

In my view, one of the solutions to this is to be as honest as we possibly can be and as open and as transparent by saying, you know, by, by caveat what we say and with the limited knowledge that we say it, and to enable people to understand why we can’t be certain and that’s that fine line. And it was interesting watching the early press briefings.

About who, who the politicians had on either side of them. So, so who did they ask to speak and on what basis and how did those individuals engage with the public? And again, I think stories or narratives or everything around this, making it real to an individual person is really important, but also as how you do that, how you.

Speak with confidence and bought you what, the way in which you carry yourself when you’re giving that presentation. we, we get that when we give evidence in the courts is how, how you are portraying yourself in terms of delivering that information. And so all of those things, there’s the, there’s the, the overt message, but then there’s the sort of subliminal cues to say, as a new member of the public, is this person believable or not?

Do I trust what they say, or do I not? And I think that all of that comes into play around this. And I 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:12:18] guess part of that is, is getting a better understanding amongst people about actually how science does work. As you say about it being a journey of discovery, rather than something that is going to tell you, tell you the answer or explicitly the answer.

I mean, it’s interesting. You just mentioned then actually sort of giving evidence in the courtroom. I mean, alongside the challenge of uncertainty, there is also the complexity around a lot of this. Is there anything from your experience of being an expert witness in the courtroom that you think we can draw from the courts in terms of how they deal with.

you know, ex witnesses, giving really complex information to a, to a lay audience. Is there any learning for us there? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:12:52] I think the critical thing and giving expert testimony in court, of course, it’s, is there a parallel, there are similarities, but a lot of differences as well, in terms of what we’re talking about, but I think the, the, the most important thing, is to have a clear line of communication.

And by that, I mean, not just. Being able to talk clearly or being able to talk with confidence. It’s being able to understand that the information that if I’m giving evidence in a case that I have in my head that I have discovered, or I have, understood from the work that I have done is being able to.

Communicate that particular piece of information to the target audience and in the courts, the target audience is always public because there are jurors. So being able to ensure that walks. I know, and the knowledge I have is put into the right context and delivered to the people that need to make a decision about it in the right way, such that it lands for them.

And that’s actually quite challenging because I know what I’m trying to communicate, but I need to try to understand. What it is that I need to say in order that somebody else understands what I’m trying to communicate. So you need to really know your audience. You need to really understand where they’re coming from, what sort of, background they might have, in terms of understanding of science or understanding of numbers or whatever it might be, and then put your message.

Clearly succinctly without jargon to that person so that they understand what it is that you’re trying to say. And that’s hard, it’s it comes with experience. It comes sometimes with training, and it, it it’s something that, isn’t always achieved in a terribly. Strong weight by expert witnesses in the courts, as well as by people who are trying to deliver messages to us.

So what do we, what do we learn from, from doing it? as an expert witness in court, I think clarity of communication is really clear or really critical. And I think removing the jargon is really important, because experts sometimes can hide behind it. It’s our comfort blanket and we can, we can, we can hide behind the big words and the scientific words, but actually.

Does that achieve our ultimate goal, getting the people that we’re talking to to understand what we’re trying to say? and so those things, if it’s appropriate and possible to put it into a narrative of some sort or a story that, contextualises the information, you’re trying to give in such a way that people get it.

And so they can make them the decisions based upon the information you’ve provided somewhere. And it’s tough. It’s difficult to do that. 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:15:30] I can’t resist now Niamh a plug for the work that you’re leading for the Royal society of Edinburgh, where the Royal society on the judicial primers, so that the work to, make even for, for very educated and, members of society, actually the need to convey that understanding of complex, complex issues.

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:15:47] Absolutely. the, the primer project was the brainchild of, the previous Lord chief justice of England Wales or justice Thomas. and it’s, it’s, it’s a unique collaboration. and I, and I, I really do mean it it’s a unique collaboration. I don’t use the word lightly. And between the Royal society of Edinburgh society.

Lord president and the Lord chief justice thing in Wales. And we have a fantastic steering committee. That’s mixtures of, fellows of thrill, side of Edinburgh, fellows of the Royal society, and then some very, very senior judges. and of course yourself as, as a CEO of throw side of Edinburgh and, you’re your equivalent in the Royal society.

And it’s been a really interesting, challenging. Project, because what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create essentially bench books. So, so, so documents that judges can, can use to refer or use as reference for scientific evidence going into the court. So the job here is not to make the judges into scientists far from it, it’s to enable the judges to make a decision.

How about the admissibility of evidence and, and in that regard, what we’re trying to do and what we have done is written a very, in very simple prose, an understanding of a particular evidence type, whether it’s DNA or forensic data analysis or statistics or ballistics or whatever, it might be such that they understand.

What is the accepted science, so that what you’re putting into the courtroom, isn’t a trial about science. It’s a trial about the, the relevance of a particular, a piece of evidence in a given circumstance. And so the, the, the judicial primaries are for the judges to enable them to do that, but also to articulate the limitations of this evidence type, when it’s used within that criminal justice context or indeed civil justice context.

so it’s been a great project to be. To be part of it’s a real privilege to be part of it. And I have to say, it’s, it’s like our research centre, it’s this, this uniqueness of bringing together scientists and lawyers to talk outside of our usual frame of reference, which is the courts, which is not an comfortable place for a scientist to be.

but to bring together those two. At different disciplines and mindsets and cultures, and to enable them to have fantastically fruitful conversations is a real privilege. It’s really quite an outstanding project. 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:18:08] And, and, you know, it must be really difficult, whether it’s for, of judges in a court case, or in terms of, you know, ministers having to make decisions if they don’t have the understanding.

I mean, as you know, I’m from an underscored background, but I’ve still found myself pouring over the data thinking I don’t quite get this, or, or what does it mean? And I can see sometimes things have been presented with best intentions about sharing, you know, whether it’s sort of variabilities are and levels of confidence, but it’s still being quite difficult to understand.

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:18:34] What 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:18:34] do we do more generally about sort of enhancing scientific and data literacy among, among both the public and indeed, particularly our decision-makers. 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:18:43] I think that’s such a challenging aspect, isn’t it? I think that the, the raising of, both data literacy and scientific literacy is, is, is a huge challenge for, for all of us and for, for society in general.

I think if the pandemic has shown us nothing else, it’s that there’s a real need to do this. and in part, I think what we’re seeing is the, as the age of science communication, beginning to come into its own, it’s, it’s growing into its poles. One could say, and I, I think we have some areas of absolute excellence.

We’ve got some, some people who really get us and we’re really good at science communication. and you know, in part it’s, it’s. It’s for us as the natural scientists, sort of social scientists, the people that work in academia, the people that work in and trying to translate to some of the work that academic institutions do and, and enable our, our, our, politicians, policy makers, decision makers, to understand what it is that we’re trying to say.

It’s it it’s around enabling them to make that translation. In a way that’s clear, but I really feel that, teaching people the skills of. Science communication is something that now should really be embedded in everything that we do from a young age as, as possible. And, you know, we, we look and we, and I think in particularly around academia, but also many organizations now as well, we talk about, public engagement and we talk about the importance of public engagement.

But from my perspective, I don’t think very many of us actually understand what we’re. Talking about that. We talk about public engagement because public engagement is a two-way journey. The engagement is the critical word in there, and engagement has to be in two directions if we’re having a conversation.

And I just talk at you. How do I know that what I’m saying is actually what I, what I’m meaning to communicate? How do I know that you’re understanding what it is that I’m trying to say? If I don’t ask you, and if I don’t engage with you and so learning that two-way journey. Is critical and we are simply not pretty good at it.

In, in academic institutions. Public engagement is often not very well invested in, it’s often one or two people that are overwhelmed by the amount of work that they have to do. And the public engagement professionals need to be, I think, empowered and trusted to trusted bios academics. To use our information on to help us communicate it properly.

So the increase in scientific literacy is all about language. It’s about talking with each other. It’s about engaging with, with, you know, the, the, the scary public out there. It’s about asking them questions around. Do you understand what I’m saying? And being prepared for them to say, no, I can’t to stop what you’re saying.

I’m working on that with them so that we can get that message across. And the same thing with data literacy. That’s a harder one. because I think that the. Raising the general numeracy and literacy of a population is really important, but it’s really hard because lots of people don’t like maths and statistics.

and so it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a, it’s a challenge, but it’s one, I think that, that we have to rise to so much of our current lives. In my view, certainly without that our future lives are going to be data-driven and it’s, it brings in it’s one of the things that we’re speaking about in our working group for the, the RSE commission, it’s raising that understanding of.

Who’s taking our data. What are they using it for? How can we give consent to it to be used? How can we refuse consent for it to be used? If we don’t give our data to people, are we then ultimately going to be disenfranchised from society and from the benefits that a data rich society provide, do we have a choice? Do we not? 

Unless we understand what data is, of what it can be used for. How can we make those informed decisions? What’s the ethical issues around it, to all of those really complicated, meaty weighty topics, I think are, are we have time now I think to discuss these in a general sense, but in order to do that public.

Whose data is being gathered needs to understand what the issue. So that’s, that’s a real challenge. 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:23:05] It’s probably worth saying. I mean, obviously, as you know, that’s one of the things in terms of the commission as a whole is putting a great emphasis on conversation, discussion and debate, not a lot of just telling people things.

And as you know, it’s a journey we’ve been on at the Royal society of Edinburgh. So with our tea and talk series that we held and as part of our summer program, just to have 10 minutes with somebody talking and then to have a conversation around it, Well in a space where I hope people do feel they’re able to ask a question or disagree with something I’ll put that put their views.

And so I think the more we can do that, the better I’m conscious of what you said about, universities valuing, public engagement. And am I right in thinking at the moment, it’s not a metric that’s particularly taken. And taken into account in terms of rankings and things like that. It’s obviously a lot of emphasis on, on, on publishing research.

Is there something you think we could do that to support more of that? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:23:59] I, I, I think you’re, you’re right. it’s not, it’s not. Certainly not in Scotland, a metric it’s emerging in England and Wales as, as a metric through, yet another measurement tool called the cat, which is I think, knowledge exchange framework.

and so it’s, it’s becoming more, recognised, I think, within the academic circles as something that’s important. One thing that is becoming, I think more heightened and there’s been a real step change in about the last maybe 12, maybe 18 months is, around what funders are requiring. So the people that fund our research, in the past only very few, funders, like the Wellcome trust and others, required.

I was part of some of the grants that they, they give that there’s a public engagement component to that. There’s this, there’s an explanation pocket at a front facing sort of impact. increasingly the major funders for other types of, of research. And, the United Kingdom research and innovation organization UKRI are now putting a lot more emphasis on citizen science-based work and public engagement work.

And they’re asking for it both as they’re funding, both research and activities within citizen science and public engagement in its own. Right. And then they’re asking for citizen science components. To be our public engagement components to be presented within ordinary grant applications. So the funders are beginning to shift their, their multiple.

And, a lot of that was spoken about by the previous chief executive officer, all UKRI. So Mark Walport who spoke. When he became a CEO, if you care about increasing this aspect of bringing town and gown together, and, you know, the importance of making science useful to the public. So I think there’s been a shift that way.

I think the universities are slow to keep up with it to be perfectly Frank. because I think, but I think that that’s changing, and I think it’s changing quite fast. some universities are much better at it than others. and there is a, a move in the right direction, but of course universities have an awful lot of other pressures upon them as well.

And particularly now, given the current situation with Covid-19 and the increased pressure that’s putting on. The Irish education and sector. So public engagement within that is beginning to emerge. Some are better than others. Some universities have put in place public engagement experts, but they’re still too few in my view.

I think we should be using their expertise to. Allow them to enable the researchers to understand actually public engagement, isn’t going off and doing a few lectures. It’s much, much more than that. And I guess he’s a bit, 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:26:44] let’s have a moment here as well. Isn’t there in terms of, I mean, you’ve got sort of general members of the public talking about the odd number, but, and, and sort of, rates of infection and things like that, which you know, is, is people are engaging with science in a way that they might not have had to do.

sort of in other endeavour times, I mean, one of the things that sort of strikes me is actually about actually, how do you then build on that to your continued understanding? I mean, it’s interesting to see also who’s bubbled up almost in those and those conversations and what’s been good to see, I think is actually a wider diversity of voices from across the scientific community, whether it’s on Twitter or appearing on the radio or on the television.

how, how do we sustain that greater engagement with the public around science? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:27:25] I mean, I think, I think it’s a really good question. I think it’s. It’s one that, you know, we’ve science has now become such a, a common word and phrases. Like we’re going to follow the science or we’re following the science or, you know, those kinds of words, the R value and understanding what it means gives us a fantastic opportunity as scientists and science communicators.

To build on it. But the question that you ask is abstract to the right relevant one, which is how do we do that? and I think in part it’s about bringing, for me, certainly it’s about bringing the public. Into our research themselves so that they become part of it so that they become equal partners to an arch extent.

So having things like citizens, assemblies, citizens’ juries involved and not just, research work that academic groups might do, but involved in, in the general business of government to have a sense check with the public, a barometer, if you like, around. What we’re trying to communicate. And in the scientific side, having citizens’ juries and citizens that have assemblies at universities, or in large research centres, we have one at the living-room centre, is, is a real eye-opener for both the researchers, but also for the public.

And they become your, your, your best advocates. and so, you know, it’s. There’s a, there’s multiple ways that you can do this. You can do public engagement work that involves working with, libraries and schools, science centres, and professional bodies and national academies. But you can also, and that’s very outwardly pushing if you like.

but also you can bring those public into you to join that journey and collaborate on that journey with you and share that experience with you. we do, also a lot of, Signs work through the media. So working with, crime writers and other fellows of the Royal society of Edinburgh, Ian Rankin, Val McDermott, people like that.

but also a white, group of, of, science writers or sorry, prime writers and to help them get the science right. And their books and all of the signs. So the primary teachers I’ve worked with have been passionate. What about getting the science right? They want it to be correct because their books are read by millions of people.

And so that’s another opportunity for science engagement. We’re also involved in, in, in working with, a theatre company, looking at putting science into place so that people begin to question, understand and explore science. So it was moods and loads of different ways of doing it. But I think the key to it.

Is using multiple avenues and not being afraid to, to work with the public, to co-produce scientific information, but also to co-produce the means of communicating the scientific information, because that makes it fun. It makes it understandable. And it, it, it creates it into something that’s, that’s easy to translate.

I think. But it takes a lot of effort. And a lot of willing in my experience is working with the public, has been, has been really rewarding. probably the scariest group to work with our children about the age of five, because they just keep saying, well, why, it’s challenging, to try to answer it in a way that they understand it.

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:30:34] And we, one of the things that feedback from a couple of people that did the tea and talks was actually how useful they’d found those sessions with members of the public, because it made them maybe rethink a fresh what they were doing or particularly how they were communicating or aspects they might not have either not thought about, or hadn’t realised that were maybe a relevant as relevant.

And as of interest to people in the way that they were. I mean, turning maybe more now towards actually how government uses data, evidence and science. I mean, you referred earlier to the primers work and, and the work that’s been done to bring together members of judiciary with academia and tackling complex challenges.

Those require that diversity of data and research. And we’ve seen that writ large in response to COVID we’ve had immunologists, modelers, behavioural science, and all sorts of other academics engaged, but that has led to discussions about, well, Well, who’s taught what type of science and data and evidence and who’s data, evidence, and science, you know, it must be very difficult for government, but how, how do they decide what is required?

And I guess more importantly, how do they show and shows a transparency around that approach? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:31:36] I think that is very difficult, because the science, as I said earlier, is. Is a, is, is a voyage of discovery. And, and sometimes often, when, when we are undertaking our experiments or we’re looking at the data that we’ve gathered, you see things that you don’t expect that, that causes you to poles and it causes you to perhaps change your view.

and one of the ways of. That science works as it brings in the perspective and points of view of others. And so that we collaboratively as a scientific community, look at discoveries, we write them up in journals, we get them peer reviewed, send them out there into the world, and then people will, will agree, disagree, build upon tear apart what you’ve done.

And that’s the natural methodology of what we’re doing, trying to do that. And to have that sort of natural. as I put it voyage of discovery, in a truncated timeframe where decisions have to be made quickly about what you’re going to tell a population to do in order for them to, to, to keep them safe and to protect, to protect them, protect their health.

What data do you pick? Who do you ask? How do you decide that this piece of evidence? So this piece of information is more valuable than another. That’s a really, really tricky one, I think. And I think that the, the, the way in which our governments talk to many governments around the world’s tablet is they bring together learner colleagues and individuals.

Who have not just, academic learning, but who have, I think also real world experience of how things develop and change so that they bring joy, not just the sort of cold data, almost that our research project or research study will bring, but also the, the calibrated experts knowledge of how that can be implemented and what might happen next and aggregate, bring those together to try to come to consensus of some type of what might be the next thing that we need to worry about or what might be the next course of action to take.

And so I think in the early days of, of the pandemic or any type of, rapidly unfolding, issue that we have to make decisions about, you you’re always basing it on data. That’s just not, well, there’s doctors just, there’s just not an enormous amount of it. So you have to put caveats in place, as I said earlier, and then.

Trying to come to a consensus and there will be people that will disagree and there will be people that would be, how do you pick who to follow in? It must be incredibly challenging for government to do this because the scientific data and the way in which we, as scientists will interpreted as only one bit of the picture, it’s our bit.

It’s the bit we’re really invested in because it’s ours and we want that information to be translated and trans, provided because it’s important, but we only see one piece of the pie. We only see one bit of the picture. Whereas government officials, policy makers, people who are informing. Our politicians and what they’re supposed to say and what they should say, how much broader aspects to also look up.

And they will also be getting advice. For example, from healthcare professionals, from business, from, border security, from all sorts of different elements. And they have to try to aggregate, bring all that together to say, this is the direction we’re going to take. I think what becomes really challenging for members of the public listening to that is when those directions change course.

Because then we’re going, well, hold on a minute, you know, yesterday you told us to do this today. You’re telling us to do something different. facemask is a really good example, you know, face mouth song going to help you. And then actually, yes, they are going to help you. So we should all wear a face mask, you know, making that decision, and finding a sufficiency of evidence to make that decision was really critical, I think.

but it took a bit of effort to get there and to then convince. the politicians to say it to the public, because certainly in this part of the world, it is so alien to our culture. To wear face masks. That there’s a, there’s a big question Mark, as to whether the population would have ever done it, but they did because the message was sold the right way.

and so I think a lot of this is about, again, that aspect of communication, of trusting the people that are behind the information in such a way that you’re going to be able to make the decision to comply with what we’re being asked to do or not as the case may be. I think when it starts to get into.

Further down the road as we are now. And it starts to get into, perhaps it has a bit more of the real world going on around us and a little bit more politics might be creeping into. And the way in which decisions are being presented to us or choices are being presented to us that becomes much more muddy and cloudy.

and so it’s, you know, In the early days, not much data, lots of different things that we need to decide on as you get more data than not number of decisions that you need to make, starts to reduce, I think is the normal, way things go. And so you have more certainty around the decisions and what the outcomes might be.

But as with anything we have, you know, we’re in unchartered territory, unprecedented times, and the decisions that we make and whether we comply with them or not, we’ll have. Consequences, both known and unknown. And it’s the unintended consequences of what actions we take that are probably the things that are most concerning as we go forward into the future.

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:36:57] And I guess one of the things that’s maybe differentiated the COVID experience from, from other challenges as being both the, the gravity of, of the, of the situation, but also. The urgency I was at where things really have to be made very, very quickly. I mean, just in terms of, I mean, obviously the UK government has the scientific advisory group on emergency Sage and there was a lot of discussion earlier on in the pandemic about actually what state, what discussions Sage were having, whether they’re being made public.

And then we had the independent Sage being set up, which I think was partly recent. Bonds to that lack of transparency as we’ve moved forward through the pandemic. How effectively do you think governments, both North and South of the border are doing now in terms of effective the harnessing and utilizing mechanisms like Sage or in Scotland, the COVID 19 advisory group to support and inform that and their thinking.

And decision-making. 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:37:47] I think that they’re, they’re having mixed, success, I think with it. I think one of the things that surprised me quite a bit was, as. In the early stages of the pandemic, the phraseology that was being used was that we were following the science and, you know, making decisions based on the best scientific knowledge.

And I think that the, the, the lack of transparency around the, the meetings of Sage and of other, advisory bodies, that to a certain extent, doesn’t really worry me that much. And the reason for that is because of the reason why it doesn’t worry me is because in, in conversations with peers, when you’re talking about data and what it means and how you derive a meaning from the information that is in front of you, you will get disagreements and you’ll get quite, you know, put polarised views, drawing ultimately to a consensus or not.

And what, what the public need is. a direction of travel and they needed clarity around that direction of travel. So making the, the, the conversations that Sage would deliver. Overtly public and transparent, perhaps wouldn’t be very helpful because there will be disagreements across them. That’s inevitable because they’re all scientists.

So looking at things in slightly different ways. I think that’s the, so I think the way in which the messaging has been done has been actually quite helpful in both governments, North and South of the border have had. Scientists or public health, representatives or law enforcement are whomsoever. And when they needed it to be at the podium, they were at the podium and they were given their voice to speak.

So I think that that was, was a good way of doing it. I think the people that communicate with that from the science side, generally speaking, did a good job. I think one of the interesting things is that the members of Sage are also speaking independently of Sage. and that they’re also providing their voices on the authority of their voices in an independent way.

and that’s an interesting. Sort of development that that’s occurred. also, and in parallel with this, I think it should also be noted that the scientific community, global scientific community actually have really, I think, surprised even themselves here because in the early stages of the pandemic, As far as I know, scientific colleagues in China released their DNA profile, for want of a better way of putting it, of the virus that they had, uncovered.

And they released it globally to scientists to try to get the scientific community in, particularly in life sciences and biological sciences to work together on building a vaccine, the publishing houses. Created, are allowed old scientific papers more or less that were published in any journal that were related to COVID-19 and to be open access.

So suddenly you have a huge amount of scientific discovery happening. That everybody could get access to so that we could work truly together as a global scientific community. some of the machine learning and AI specialists over in the States produced for free, means, COVID-19 research tracker, if you like, which gave us instant access to all of these journal papers searched by keyword.

So you have this huge amount of activity going on. And what does it result in. Well, my goodness, me, what used to take us 10 years. We’ve done in 10 months, we’ve created a vaccine and that just shows you, I think that if we work together, if we generate the data properly, if we enable the scientists to actually do the science in a way that’s open, transparent collegiate, then we can really make a difference.

And if we can do it for something as serious as COVID, why can’t we do it for something as serious as climate change. Why can’t we do it just for something as serious as curing, you know, some of the terrible diseases that humanity is faced with. We’ve just shown to ourselves what we can do if we work together and we do it with trust, with openness, with transparency and with compassion.

that was a real eye-opener. 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:41:56] It’s interesting. What you say both in terms of actually we’ve had experts from various different sectors, standing at the podium next to the first minister or the prime minister. There’s been experts. Who’ve been developing vaccines or indeed better treatments for COVID.

Do you think the country has had enough of experts? Or do you think this has maybe, brought experts back to the foreign and maybe a more positive way than, than previously? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:42:17] I think that’s an interesting one. I think, how’s the country had enough of experts. That’s an interesting question. I think that, I think that I’ll turn it around a little bit.

I think that. Country wants to hear from experts who can properly communicate to them. We don’t talk at them or talk with them who enabled them to understand things and don’t just tell them what they have to do. And I think that’s a very different type of expert, I think throughout the country, expects as people who, who can, who can make this real for them and who can make the solutions, transparent.

trustworthy and I think that’s a different type of expert now. I think that if we, if we show them science and Sean experts and expertise, then we potentially lose the opportunities that those experts and expertise can bring to making the world a better place. so I think it’s a, it’s a, it’s a challenging.

it’s a challenge for the experts to, to a certain extent, make themselves more, more able to communicate their science in an effective way. But also it’s a challenge for the people who are receiving that to open themselves up to the fact that they, they also need to move a little bit with us and to understand that science isn’t black and white, and it’s never going to be, you’re never going to get the yes, no answer.

And that, you know, scientists make mistakes. But what we do is we learn from our mistakes and we build upon those mistakes. And we, we, we ensure that those mistakes are not. they’re not for all, for nothing that you learn from them. A great example, I think is, the, the COVID, vaccine that’s come out of Oxford university where an error produced actually a defining result.

And the, the scientists were completely from Tibet. You know, we have, we have one group of patients, a different dosage than we intended to, but goodness, look at the result. And so that, those kind of. Sex changes and understanding often come from somebody doing the wrong thing, but not, not, being admonished for it.

If you, if you see what I mean, but actually going, what can we learn from it? What does that tell us? and so I think we need experts to be more open, better communicators. And I think we need the, the recipients of that expertise to be a little bit more acknowledging that it ain’t black and white. I mean, 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:44:35] you, you were talking just a minute ago about actually the, the, the, some of the positive things.

If I can say that, that come out of the pandemic in terms of collaboration across the research community, on the, and that sharing of sharing of data. I mean, one of the challenges, particularly early on in the pond, and it was actually about gaps in data, we know that COVID has both shine a spotlight on unreinforced inequalities in society.

How do we ensure that data, evidence and science doesn’t further exclude people and actually can be developed in a way that actually enables us to better understand, for example, what is the impact of COVID on, on people from black and minority ethnic communities or different groups and at different parts of the country.

have you got any thoughts on that? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:45:16] Well, I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that it’s, it has very much shown a light on the way in which data is collected the way in which different communities are contempt to provide data. and that is again, all about having trust. And what am I collecting data for?

What’s the purpose of it? What’s it going to be used for who’s going to have it, what does it mean if I give this data away about myself because the state took that myself away. and that’s, again, comes back to clear communication, respect of diversity, respect of the need to include people, and being mindful and respectful of those people.

So, you know, the ethnic minority groups is one, but people who have felt disabilities is another. people who might have, challenges with articulating how they, how they, how they speak to us, how they communicate with us. And that gets back to, you know, the, the, the efforts of Scottish government.

In the very early days of the pandemic, right out of the blocks, how somebody there who was, who was signing, what the first minister was saying and what the other experts were saying, and just being respectful enough of the diversity of society to make an overt gesture, to say, I am respecting the fact that there’s diversity within our society and begins.

To bridge that trust that I think is needed from all of us, such that we’re all included in both the collection of the data, but in how we choose to have that data be used. So I think a lot of it is about, it’s not just about. the data collection processes. It’s also about ensuring that everybody in society has a voice and that everybody in society is empowered to use that voice and that everybody in society feels that that voice matters.

And I think those are the things that’s where we have to start. And after that, there’s all of the complexities then of, well, how do we make sure that our algorithms aren’t going to be biased and how do we make sure all of, but that’s actually nuts and bolts. To a large extent. the first stage is getting people to buy in, and you do that by respect, by kindness, by compassion and by trust 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:47:26] final question from me.

And I may be a slightly unfair one, but, you know, having learned all that we have from the pandemic and seeing how it’s evolved across the year, if you could go back to January, 2020 now when all this was emerging and provide one piece of advice to government. What would it be? 

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:47:46] that’s a horrible question.

What would it be? I think hindsight is a, is a, it was a great, tool. I think for me, the thing that government had to do, from the very, very get go office is communicate properly is communicate clearly is communicate in a way that tools. Multifaceted, but with the same message. So communicate in, in, language in reports and visuals.

So all of that use all of their arsenal, but to do it in a way that was clear, precise, but in a way that people understood what the message was and what the caveats were around it. And so I think communication is critical, but also that communication needs to be one that engages people with the mindfulness.

That engagement is a two-way street. so, that, that engagement process needs to be done with compassionate, with empathy. 

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:48:43] Thank you, Professor. Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise with us today on how we can use the learning from COVID to make better use of data, evidence, and science in the future.


Professor Niamh Nic Daeid: [00:48:53] It’s been my absolute pleasure. Thank you.

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