ARE the costs of becoming involved in public life too high? Last week, Edinburgh University public health professor Devi Sridhar told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry about her experiences over the pandemic.

Sridhar needs no introduction. Like ­Jason Leitch, she became ubiquitous on the nation’s airwaves for months on end from the beginning of the pandemic to its ­concluding stages – becoming in the ­process one of the best-known academics in the country.

As her public profile rose, she also gained direct access to a range of political figures during the long months of changing policy to tackle Covid-19, contributing to policy debates about freedoms and restrictions not only in public but behind the scenes.

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Sridhar didn’t position herself just as a neutral mapper and explainer – which can be a comfort position for academics dipping their toes into the public domain – but as an analyst and critic of government policy. She not only shared her knowledge of the state of the science on Covid-19 but gave her opinion on that evidence.

The National: Jason LeitchJason Leitch (Image: PA)

Experts should. Most of us aren’t equipped with the background and ­education to decode the strengths and weaknesses of emerging scientific ­studies. We need a friendly guide to take us through the ­detail if we’re to begin understanding it at all. That requires interpretation as well as facts. Interpretations sometimes vary.

Participating in hundreds of media ­interviews, Professor Sridhar was ­given countless opportunities not only to ­explain the latest knowledge about the novel ­coronavirus to the public but to make errors in the heat of the moment, to ­misspeak or mis-predict the future.

There were moments where she ­probably misspoke or was asked to speak ­beyond her expertise. This often ­happens in live ­broadcasts – sometimes because of the ­compressed nature of the format, ­sometimes because of scientific ­uncertainties, ­sometimes because experts are invited to steer out of their academic lanes by ­presenters.

But I reckon most folk who tuned in to the telly or radio during this uncertain ­period in our shared history were grateful to have the opportunity to hear directly from expert voices prepared to talk in a human and accessible way about their area of expertise as best they understood it at the time.

“I stepped up and I tried to provide honest information to the public on the risks, on what we knew about it, on what other countries were doing. I tried not to be alarming, I tried to be always factual,” Sridhar told the inquiry. But she became a household name because she was good at bridging the divide between expert and popular communication.

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Many scholars aren’t. When I do media training for academics, I always tell them they can gesture to complexity without bamboozling the audience with it. You can caveat what you are saying without ­caveating your argument into oblivion. You can remind people an issue is ­technical without sounding like you’re conducting the interview in Ancient Greek.

But being put on the spot can be stressful. In my case, the most dangerous thing I might do is prognosticate on potential outcomes of a court case and get it wrong. With a whole world chasing insight into Covid-19, judging what restrictions could work and how well and with labs across the globe trying to progress effective vaccines, Sridhar’s invitations onto the national media had a real risk of peddling false ­reassurances or stoking fears with real ­social consequences.

The National: Devi SridharDevi Sridhar

I say all this to pay tribute to her and those like her who were courageous enough to try to parlay what they learned into the studies into greater public ­understanding when public anxiety was intense and where it must have been tempting to decline the offer, citing the weight of unknown unknowns involved and the opportunity to set your academic reputation on fire in public.

It would have been all too easy to have hidden in the lab, unhounded, complaining about the quality of media reporting, without lifting a finger to improve it. It is to Sridhar’s profound credit she didn’t do that given the stakes and consequences.

In 1995, the University of Oxford ­established a new chair of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Its inaugural holder was Richard Dawkins (below) of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion fame. I’ve always admired the innovation and the spirit behind it.

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Just as conspiracy theories and junk ­science claims have proliferated, so too have public appetites for better and more accessible information. The most ­impactful thing most academics will do is teach our students, but public engagement is hugely important. Sniffish colleagues sometimes react with unconcealed disapproval to academics involving themselves in everything from popular history to popular science – but that may be because their involvement is defensive, conservative and dull.

We need more active citizens in our country. Universities are public ­institutions – and should have the ­courage to act that way. But as Sridhar explained, her experience of sticking her head above the parapet had consequences. Some of them were downright sinister. In 2022, she disclosed she had been sent a used face mask and mysterious white powder in the post. Last week, she opened up on the “rough” aspects of being so involved in public communication.

“I have gotten death threats, I’ve had racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it, xenophobia, and I’ve taken it because I think the bigger idea is that we try to help each other and do good, and I stay true to that.” Boo hoo, her critics say, unmoved by any of this, sneering at this as special pleading for an unmerited victim status. If you actually watched her evidence, it is obvious she didn’t want to make too much of her personal experience, but was intent on making a broader point.

Monstering has consequences. Come the next crisis, come the next moment when the press and public are clamouring for experts to help explain what’s what – and nobody volunteers.

“I lead a team of researchers at the university. About 75% are young women and they don’t want to go near government service or the media, they’ve seen too much. And it makes me sad because I’ve done my tour of duty, I’ve done my ­service but who’s going to step up next time? I don’t think, seeing how it’s gone, that others will be willing to do it, because the cost is high and the benefits are low.”

It is a difficult balance to strike. If you are in a privileged position, ­exercising ­privileged ­access to the public ­domain, to national media, to ministers, ­governments, parliaments, ­official planning and policy – all amplifying and ­giving credence to what you are saying – then you shouldn’t be surprised to find people who disagree with you may express themselves less than deferentially.

If you enjoy none of these advantages of access and influence and platform, ­people will not unreasonably struggle to see you as the one being bullied into silence, overlooked and disregarded by mean tweets.

For the recipients of this kind of ­audience feedback, it is equally understandable that they feel like they’re ­receiving an unmerited slagging, full of ad hominem arguments, disguised or ­undisguised prejudices, bad faith ­readings of your position, distortion, even ­defamation – and they’re usually right to feel this way.

It is a deeply strange thing to discover that a bunch of folks you’ve never met seem to hate you for reasons you can’t control, and have elaborate discussions amongst themselves about everything they think is wrong about you – from your appearance to their sometimes baseless perceptions of your personal life.

Modern universities talk about ­“impact” in benign and constructive terms as if it is just a matter of ­disseminating your ­research findings – like scattering seeds into a friendly wind and waiting for them to find fertile soil.

But as Sridhar explains, the reality can be something much harder and more demanding. Breenge into a contested debate and as Sridhar found, you quickly begin attracting lightning. Politicians will use you to justify and defend their choices, and to attack and discredit their opponents. And in so doing, they’ll make your enemies for you.

It is traditional these days to suggest that the monstering public figures end up receiving is attributable to rude people on the internet who, anonymised, feel free to be far fouler to people than they’d contemplate doing in real life.

This analysis neatly displaces responsibility. The reality is that concerted efforts to discredit and demonise individuals in public life almost always starts at the top, inspired by mainstream media outlets or kicked off by politicians who spot opportunities to aggrandise their own positions or attack their opponents. Many will look at Sridhar’s experience and treat it as a cautionary tale. Knowing the consequences, why should I volunteer to put my head on the block?

We’ll all be poorer for it.