Science has been overrun with politics – it’s time to take it back

At the onset of the Covid pandemic in February 2020, the pages of the Lancet, a very prestigious medical journal, carried a statement eulogising China and the efforts it had already made to deal with the virus.

For the luminaries who signed the statement, no praise could be too high for the Chinese. They had worked “diligently”, “rapidly” and “effectively”. Without a trace of irony, the scientists praised Beijing’s “transparency”. 

The letter was a key foundation of the worldwide campaign to discredit suggestions that the virus had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. Former US President Donald Trump propounded theories about Covid being manufactured in China or it leaking from the lab. Instantly, the scientific establishment gathered forces to denounce the idea and failed to even consider the possibility. 

Politics has become the currency of science. 

The escape theory has now gathered mainstream momentum, thanks to the efforts of a handful of persistent scientists, who were vilified for challenging the consensus. Investigators from the World Health Organisation were denied access to the lab at the centre of the controversy, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to the dismay of global commentators. 

In February last year, I was visiting the Centre for Complex Systems at the University of Sydney, headed by scientific polymath Mikhail Prokopenko.

As news of the seemingly deadly virus began to emerge from China, Mikhail showed me a paper published in Nature Medicine, one of the two top scientific journals in the world.

The paper, published in 2015, was titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence”.

The article had a variety of authors mostly from the US. Two stood out – both from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Evidence was easily available about WIV’s research into Covid-type viruses. 

At the same time, a daily chart of new cases of Covid reported in Wuhan. Given the underlying maths of how viruses spread, the data point which changed before our eyes was literally incredible. The time evolution of cases of any virus would not generate that observation.

The idea that human error or inefficiency had enabled it to escape ought not to have been dismissed in the way it was. Lab escapes are not uncommon. 

But it was, because political lines decreed it to be so. 

The scientific method is about examining the evidence to test hypotheses. If hypotheses are rejected on the basis of prior beliefs, science itself is in danger of being discredited.

The science around Covid is at risk of being seen merely as a politicised arm of the global liberal elite. The traditional values of openness and objectivity must be restored as a matter of urgency.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 25th August 2021
Image: Flickr

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.