Several prominent scientists have openly criticized the working method of the advice from the Outbreak Management Team (OMT). This team has been advising the cabinet for weeks to manage the corona crisis. The OMT therefore has the most important influence on policy, because the cabinet is adopting the recommendations one by one.
News hour spoke to scientists from different disciplines. They point out that the preparation and substantiation of the OMT advice is secret and therefore uncontrollable and not very transparent.
For example, Eric Jan Wagenmakers, professor of methodology at the University of Amsterdam, is surprised at the lack of scientific substantiation in the OMT recommendations. “It remains unclear whether the advice is based on the opinion of the experts or on hard scientific research. So it is very difficult to determine to what extent the advice should now be trusted.”
Experts who have participated in the OMT several times also question the state of affairs. Groningen microbiologist Alex Friedrich believes that there should be more transparency about the course of the internal discussions at OMT. He also has reservations about the imposed secrecy. “I’m not used to this as a scientist. We speak openly, we mainly contradict each other.”
Many matters of the Outbreak Management Team are secret. Members are not allowed to tell the press what has been discussed within the OMT, they refer to the advice. The minutes of the OMT meetings are not public and the models, data and underlying documents used by the OMT team are also not published.
RIVM says that this has to do with the sensitivity of the discussions. The documents cannot be requested through the Government Information (Public Access) Act, nor are they presented to the House of Representatives or the Ministry of Health, Science and Sport. There is therefore no way to check on the basis of which the OMT reaches its advice. RIVM initially kept the names of OMT members secret, but now more has become known about the team through the press.
Epidemiologist Gowri Gopalakrishna, who conducts research on scientific integrity at the VUmc in Amsterdam, questions the way in which OMT members are selected, what their references are and what they base their decisions on: “That is not in line with the principles of open science.”
Doctor-microbiologist Jan Kluytmans does believe that the OMT participants should be able to talk freely and safely, whereby points cannot be traced back to a person or institution. But he believes that the substantive discussions should not be secret. “As a scientist, I always think it is important that you make your method, your results and your advice transparent, so that others can test them.”
In a response, RIVM says: “It is true that as a rule no scientific references and footnotes have been included in the OMT advice. However, the fact that the scientific basis for statements ‘therefore’ is missing is an incorrect conclusion.” RIVM also states that the task of the OMT is “not to provide a scientific dissertation, but to – based on the knowledge, experience and debate of the broad group of experts – provide the best possible professional advice at the time.”
“I had expected a discussion about a lack of transparency in countries like China, but not in the Netherlands. In that sense, it really amazes me,” said Gopalakrishna, who worked as an epidemiologist in Singapore during the SARS outbreak. This while the recommendations of the Outbreak Management Team do contain statements that give the cabinet a clear direction.
News hour spoke to a number of stakeholders around the permanent OMT. It appears that a relevant discussion took place within the OMT on March 12, which is not included in the public opinion. A few members doubted whether the schools should remain open. The advice reads: “Overall school closure contributes less to limiting the circulation of the virus.” The various thoughts that lived within the OMT, however, are not included in the advice, while the OMT does have the option of issuing a so-called “two-part advice”. Moreover, it is not possible to read back in the advice on which the OMT bases this ruling.
That is problematic, says Wagenmakers. “It means that you are involved in politics. Doubt is part of science and if scientists disagree with each other in committee, it should be mentioned in the report.” But the other way around, he says. “When politicians say they are going to do everything that science recommends, they saddle those scientists with political responsibility.”