I will get to the coronavirus eventually, I promise. However, first some personal experience about how experts keep being ignored.
Once upon a time, I wrote a detailed plan on how to make universities greener, but none of the universities I have worked for in Taiwan were interested. I also worked on how to determine priority areas for biodiversity conservation in Taiwan; not a single nongovernmental organization or government department ever invited me for a talk.
I have written about climate change and renewable energy, biodiversity, sustainable cities and plastic pollution in scientific journals and in the Taipei Times, but no invitation for expert advice has been extended to me in the 10 long years I have worked in Taiwan.
In 2004, my supervisor, Paul Ewald, and I published a scientific article titled “Pathogen survival in the external environment and the evolution of virulence” in the journal Biological Reviews.
In this article, we showed that the longer a pathogen can survive in the outside environment, the more people it kills on average.
The evolutionary theory behind it need not be explained here because that is too complicated, and it is all in the article.
Given that COVID-19 has a relatively high mortality rate, which exceeds that of the influenza virus, this new coronavirus should also survive relatively long in the outside environment.
Recent studies reported survival rates of up to six days on plastic surfaces, but given the results in our 2004 paper, I suspect survival might even be weeks in some circumstances.
Alternatively, the new coronavirus might eventually evolve to having a lower mortality rate if its survival in the outside environment is lower than expected.
Either way, the most important point is that investigating the coronavirus’ survival in the outside environment is absolutely essential to understanding its epidemiology and its containment.
As governments around the world keep ignoring expert advice (including myself and, of course, thousands of other experts working on diseases), we find ourselves in this global crisis.
Therefore, I propose a tentative solution: Give more power in actual decisionmaking to experts. I call this expert-driven democracy. Over the past few centuries, it has been found that even democratically elected politicians are too often driven by self-interest, while having limited knowledge of the evermore complex problems that the world faces. Consequently, some powers have already been taken away from them.
Most democratic constitutions divide that power into independent or semi-independent executive, legislative and judicial branches. Many countries and even the EU have enshrined central bank independence so that monetary policymakers have freedom from direct political or governmental influence to implement economic policies.
Especially in cases of acute emergency, an expert, such as a leader of the police or firefighters, would make all decisions, not a politician. Why was this done? Because politicians cannot be trusted with these kinds of decisions, so it was decided that the experts should decide.
Every day politicians are screwing up with regards to the coronavirus crisis. In countries where the government listened to experts (eg, Taiwan), the epidemic was contained, and in countries where the government ridiculed the experts (eg, the US), the crisis is spinning out of control. It should therefore be seriously considered that, whenever it comes to complex problems that can only be properly understood and managed by experts, they should be given more power or even absolute power to make decisions within their realms of expertise.
A similar crisis that cries out for this kind of realignment of power toward expert crisis management is the global environmental crisis. It encompasses the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and the phosphorus-nitrogen crisis (“Pandemic response mirrors what is needed for climate change,” March 27, page 9).
As the 2015 article entitled “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” in the journal Science demonstrated, economic policies are being pursued which might soon push the Earth system beyond a point of no return (“Mass bleaching of Great Barrier Reef documented,” March 27, page 4).
Despite the efforts of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, selfish squabbling between national governments is blocking any solutions that would actually remedy this all-encompassing global crisis.
Unless experts are relied on to actually set strict limits on, for example, greenhouse gas emissions so that the world stays within safe planetary boundaries, there is no chance of mitigating these fast onrushing disasters, which will in all likelihood far exceed the damage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unless power is taken away from these often selfish, arrogant and pretty useless decisionmakers and is given to experts who would decide on reasonable frameworks and policies given their best knowledge of a very specialized field, there is no chance of solving these global crises.
Just imagine how much better the coronavirus crisis would have been handled if all the key decisions had been made by an expert panel of the WHO. Or the experts of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had managed the epidemic inside the US instead of the blustering orange buffoon in the White House.
One example in the right direction is that French President Emmanuel Macron established scientific committees based on pluralistic scientific expertise to assist the French government in its decisionmaking.
Scientific knowledge and insight is growing at an exponential rate, and even I can hardly understand the latest climate science, let alone the 99.999 percent of science for which I am not an expert. Experts are producing wonderful insights and tremendous solutions to all sorts of difficult problems every day, but remain ignored by the public, media and, most importantly, the decisionmakers.
Maybe it is time for a paradigm shift in how decisionmaking is approached in our ever more complex world. Perhaps our democratically elected decisionmakers should be stripped of the power to make decisions about topics that they can hardly understand, let alone manage properly.
If such a power shift is itself surrounded with proper selections, checks and balances, I foresee more beneficial than disastrous outcomes in the future.
Or keep ignoring us at your peril and suffer the consequences.
Bruno Walther is a professor of biology at National Sun Yat-sen University’s biological sciences department.
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