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Open letter (translation)

Published in Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, 12 October, 2020;
Translated by Google. (See original in Dutch.)

Stop the mixing of scientific and policy advice

NRC Handelsblad Open Letter
Screenshot of NRC website

The Corona crisis affects all countries. Some countries lack the resources to do something about it, and others lack the will. But certainly in Western Europe, both the will and the resources are there to combat the pandemic. Yet not all countries do this equally well. In the spring this could still be attributed to a lack of knowledge, but now the differences are significant.

It is depressing to see that in the past month, the increase in the number of infections in the Netherlands has increased faster than in any other Western European country (and that is not because we test so much: The Netherlands is in Europe in 30th place – among all other Western European countries). In the past six months, the Netherlands has also not lacked expertise, medical infrastructure or excellent doctors, nurses and carers. Nor was it lacking the financial means to act.

The relatively poor performance of the Netherlands in anticipating and combating the second wave of the pandemic is, in our opinion, in part due to the fact that scientific insights about the spread of COVID19, which are now generally accepted in the scientific world, are The Netherlands has determined policy too late and too little. That is why we have conceived the plan for an initiative in which scientists from the Netherlands and abroad can help map the broadest possible scientific knowledge about Covid-19 as well as possible.

Considering the knowledge we now have, we think that scientific advice in the Netherlands should be more independent of policy advice.

This policy advice (rightly so) comes from RIVM – which is part of the Ministry of VWS. The Outbreak Management Team (OMT), set up to translate science into practical measures, is chaired by the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Control of the RIVM. The members of the OMT must declare in writing that they do not deviate from OMT recommendations in word or writing. Although these recommendations are public, the factual material on which they are based is often not disclosed: it is therefore difficult for the scientific field to compare this input with other sources, or to provide constructive input.

Please note: RIVM is an excellent institution and the expertise of the members of the OMT is not in question. But the OMT does not have the broad composition of, for example, SAGE in the UK (in SAGE there are doctors, economists, engineers, chemists, physicists, etc.) or of the German Akademie Leopoldina. For understandable reasons, the OMT had a strong medical focus in the acute phase. But in tackling COVID19, almost all fields of science are now important: what happens to the virus between the time it leaves a carrier and lands with a susceptible person is not determined by biology, any more than the response of citizens to Corona measures. The relevant expertise is available in the Netherlands, but the communication between the scientific field and RIVM/OMT is far from optimal, while it is precisely what matters to strengthen RIVM so that policy can respond flexibly to new insights. That is not the case now: even now there are guidelines on the RIVM website that are outdated (as we had to hear from Dr Fauci on 28/9, to our shame).

It shouldn’t have come this far – and it can’t go on like this.

In the Netherlands, scientific advice must of course support policy, but it must be decoupled from policy – and that does not only apply to the current crisis. As already argued in May by the previous and current president of the KNAW (Volkskrant, 6/5/20): the scientific advice must cover a much wider area than has been the case up to now. The advice must be public and can be tested. OMT and RIVM can then make concrete policy proposals based on the broadest possible scientific knowledge.

More than enough excellent, often young researchers [in the Netherlands] are happy to make their knowledge and expertise available in the public interest. Hopefully, our initiative will contribute to the optimal use of all scientific knowledge, available in the Netherlands and elsewhere, to effectively combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Signed:

  • Anna Akhmanova, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Henk Barendregt, Radboud Universiteit
  • Ad Bax, NIH, Maryland, USA
  • Daniel Bonn, Universiteit van Amsterdam
  • Dorret Boomsma, Vrije Universiteit
  • Hans Clevers, Universiteit Utrecht
  • RenĂ© de Borst, University of Sheffield
  • Carsten de Dreu, Universiteit Leiden
  • Willem de Vos, Wageningen University & Research
  • Cees Dekker, Technische Universiteit Delft
  • Nynke Dekker, Technische Universiteit Delft
  • Robbert Dijkgraaf, University of Princeton
  • Marjolein Dijkstra, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Daan Frenkel, University of Cambridge
  • Els Goulmy, Universiteit Leiden
  • Frank Grosveld, Erasmus Universiteit
  • Peter Hagoort, Radboud Universiteit
  • Ronald Hanson, Technische Universiteit Delft
  • RenĂ© Janssen, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven
  • Mariette Knaap, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Jos Lelieveld, MPI-Chemie, Mainz, GER
  • Detlef Lohse, Universiteit Twente
  • Birgit Meyer, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Ieke Moerdijk, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Pieter Muysken, Radboud Universiteit
  • Hans Oerlemans, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Michel Orrit, Universiteit Leiden
  • Bob Pinedo, Vrije Universiteit
  • Theo Rasing, Radboud Universiteit
  • Marten Scheffer, Wageningen University & Research
  • Albert van den Berg, Universiteit Twente
  • Ed van den Heuvel, Universiteit van Amsterdam
  • John van der Oost, Wageningen University & Research
  • Jan van Hest, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven
  • Rien van IJzendoorn, Erasmus Universiteit
  • Frits van Oostrom, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Wim van Saarloos, Universiteit Leiden
  • Erik Verlinde, Universiteit van Amsterdam
  • Bert Weckhuysen, Universiteit Utrecht
  • Cisca Wijmenga, Universiteit Groningen
  • Jan Zaanen, Universiteit Leiden