How has your background prepared you for your advisory role in the pandemic?
Having originally studied social policy I think I’ve always been interested in the policy aspects of public health. I’ve actively sought out opportunities to work with decision makers and even as a PhD student I had a part-time job as a researcher in the then Scottish Office (now Scottish Government).
As a post doc I worked in a Department of Health funded institute, and later in my career I was appointed as scientific adviser on tobacco control for the UK Government. I’ve also worked with the World Health Organization in an advisory role and for the past seven years with Cancer Research UK as their cancer prevention adviser.
All these roles have been part time in combination with University work. I think you need to spend time with policy colleagues and other decision makers to understand what their needs are and where research evidence can inform their thinking.
Given that the Covid-19 pandemic is primarily about public health, it seemed a natural step to try and assist by drawing on some of my past experience in advisory roles.
How did it feel to be appointed OBE for guiding the public health response to, and public understanding of, Covid-19?
The Queen’s Birthday Honours this year included a number of colleagues who have contributed to the pandemic response, including scientists and clinicians involved in developing Covid-19 trials and finding new treatments, for example. I was honoured to be included alongside them.
I was particularly pleased that the OBE was awarded at least in part for the work I have done with the media, trying to help explain to viewers and listeners what the latest data could tell us, what was happening not just here but across the world and what new studies had found, as well as what their limitations were.
Science communication is important but not always valued. The pandemic has, I think, really highlighted the role researchers can play in that.
It’s been challenging to respond to so many daily media requests while juggling ongoing research, teaching and advisory roles. Everyone working in public health has had to step up and do their bit. This was my way of trying to help.
How does being an academic help support decision making in the response to Covid-19?
In addition to the science communication work I have been doing, I served as adviser to the Covid-19 committee of the Scottish Parliament, which has recently become the Covid-19 recovery committee.
For me it was important to take that on along with Dr Helen Stagg, an epidemiologist who is also based in the Usher Institute at Edinburgh. We both felt we could support the committee by answering members’ questions and assisting them in their role, which is to scrutinise and report on the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19.
This kind of contribution and previous advisory roles I have had make a difference, but ultimately the policy decisions are made by others. Scientists and researchers can advise but not dictate what happens.
Once everyone is vaccinated do you see an eventual return to full normality?
The vaccine programme is making a real difference, reducing the risk of symptomatic infections and particularly severe disease and death. Vaccines will allow us to gradually move from the current pandemic to a situation where the virus is endemic.
This should allow us to gradually return to more normal life. But we are going to need public health measures (testing, contact tracing, support for self-isolation) for some time to come and we must continue to invest in that infrastructure.
Some of the protective behaviours including wearing face coverings in indoor areas may also still be needed at least in some circumstances. There are quite a few behaviours we might retain, including use of technology for virtual appointments and meetings, thinking carefully about travel (not just for public health but also for the environment) and for some occupations, more working from home where appropriate.
Also, we must not forget the international context – vaccine roll out globally is a huge challenge but will be essential.
Are there any particular lessons you believe can be learned from this pandemic?
Where to start. Much will be written about this for years to come. We should look backwards as well as forwards, including what we can learn from previous pandemics.
On science communication specifically, one of the topics I’ve been working on with the Royal Society of Edinburgh has been scientific misinformation and how to counter it.
With smallpox in the 19th century, people challenged a vaccine developed from cow pox by saying that it was unnatural and would result in human/bovine hybrids. The modern equivalent is that a Covid-19 vaccine alters your DNA. This is nonsense.
Researchers need to step up and provide a more informed perspective. Organisations like the Science Media Centre are providing an invaluable role on that front, along with University press offices, and I’d encourage early career researchers to engage with them as we learn from this pandemic to counter disinformation in future.
What do you think the legacy of Covid-19 will be and what are your hopes for the future?
The process of recovery is going to be hugely challenging. Particularly as the inequalities that existed pre-Covid-19 have undoubtedly been made worse, not just here but around the world. We will need targeted investment for health and social care services to deal with a huge backlog of unmet needs, and for a range of sectors to assist with economic recovery.
There is too much in this question for a simple answer, but I and colleagues across all three Colleges at the University will be trying to play our part, not only through ongoing and new research but also by working with a range of organisations to find solutions, and with students to support them during this next academic year and the years to come.
Photography: Lawrence Winram