In the eye of the storm

As Chair of the National Science Task Force, Martin Ackermann has to perform a constant balancing act between science, politics, the media and society. So how does he do it?
Martin Ackermann, head of the Swiss National COVID-​19 Science Task Force. (Photograph: Keystone/Anthony Anex)

Mr. Ackermann, you’re the Chair of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, a role that includes advising the Federal Council on the coronavirus pandemic. Do you ever wish you were a Federal Councillor yourself?
It’s never really occurred to me! In the situ­ation we’re in right now, I suppose it would sometimes feel more satisfying to be involved in making decisions rather than just giving advice. So it’s an interesting idea. But I’ve also seen how much responsibility politicians have and how much pressure they’re under – so maybe I’m better off as a professor after all (laughs).

So all you can really do is give recommendations?
We provide the scientific rationale, but it’s the politicians who make the decisions. As Chair of the Task Force, I also take part in the government press briefings. A lot of the behind-the-scenes work is about relationship-building and dialogue. It took us quite a long time to win the trust of the political establishment. After all, we can only do our job properly if the decision-makers trust us! We play multiple roles: we’re the voice of science, we advise the government and provide the public with information. It’s quite a balancing act to do those three things simultaneously. As an independent body, we are supposed to question and probe the government’s response, but our role as advisers only works if politicians trust us.

What have you learned about politics over the past few months?
I have tremendous respect for politicians because they work within a framework that in­fluences virtually everything they do. That way of working is not something I’m familiar with as a scientist. When we conduct research, we’re the ones who set the standard we want to achieve, and then we work until we achieve it. But politicians are faced with these huge practical constraints that affect just about everything. Having said that, I’ve met politicians who not only understand the politics of this pandemic but also have an excellent grasp of the science.

«Obviously, this crisis surpasses anything I could have imagined, but I still thought we would cope with it better.»      Martin Ackermann

How about the media?
It’s amazing how well some journalists keep on top of things: I learn as much from talking to them as they do from talking to me. But I’ve also learned that the media have this tremendous urge to highlight differences. Because media voices have a major impact on public health, that emphasis on differences can be damaging – and I’m not convinced that everyone in the media is fully aware of that responsibility. At the same time, of course, the media has an important role in probing and questioning the official line and government decisions.

Switzerland seems to be having a hard time dealing with this crisis. Would you agree?
Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment. Last autumn, in particular, a lot of people got infected, and a lot of people died.

Does that surprise you?
Yes, it does. Obviously, this crisis surpasses anything I could have imagined, but I still thought we would cope with it better. I expected us to take an evidence-based approach, deploy all sorts of tools and make the most of our technological assets. I had high expectations, but I’ve been disappointed.

Might it stem from our belief that we’re somehow better than everyone else?
I think the biggest problem was how quickly people seized on the idea that we had to choose between health and the economy. That coloured the whole debate and made it very difficult to take bold action at an early stage. The Task Force has reached a very clear consensus that the best solution for both public health and the economy is to impose tough restrictions that bring case numbers down rapidly rather than taking a light-touch approach and accepting long periods with high case numbers.

But how do you persuade the public of the need for tougher restrictions when, even at the height of the second wave, a quarter of ICU beds were still empty?
The problem is that we’re not very good at understanding exponential processes. When the number of cases surged in October, some voices argued that we should add an extra 200 certified ICU beds and ask staff to work an additional four hours a week. Despite knowing that this suggestion wasn’t feasible, the Task Force still calculated what impact those measures would have had. Our calculations showed they would have gained us just 36 hours! You can’t fight exponential growth with linear measures, but it’s hard to accept that when you’re right at the beginning of that kind of development.

Is that why so many people are sceptical?
Even when hospitals are full, the effect corona­virus has on most people’s day-to-day lives is minimal or non-existent. You can’t see it or feel it, even though everyone is telling you that it’s terrible and that you have to accept all kinds of restrictions to combat it. That’s a tough thing to grasp, so it doesn’t surprise me that so many people are sceptical. That’s why it’s so important for hospital staff and patients to tell the public what they’re going through.

It’s starting to feel like some people have stopped listening to scientific evidence. Have we done something wrong?
I think a lot of it comes down to empathy. You can’t get people on board without first knowing where they stand. Listening to people and understanding why they believe what they believe is extremely important. But that’s obviously difficult in group situations such as press briefings. It’s something you need to tackle on a one-to-one basis.

What skills are most important to you right now?
Talking to people, swapping ideas. The most important thing at the moment is relationship-building. We need to focus on listening and understanding so that we can find solutions together – and on not losing our cool when things don’t work out. There are aspects of this pandemic that are closely related to my specialist field, and scientific expertise is a key part of our work on the Task Force – but, taken by itself, it’s not enough.

You actually work as a professor at ETH, but do you have any time left for that side of things?
ETH and Eawag were both incredibly supportive and let me hand over nearly all my responsibil­ities, but it’s been much harder for my research group. I’ve been setting aside time for one-on-one sessions, but I can’t contribute as much at the moment as I would like to. That’s tough because there’s a lot at stake for the careers of these young, talented individuals.

«In Switzerland, people quickly seized on the idea that we had to choose between health and the economy.»      Martin Ackermann

And how are you coping on a personal level? Do you get any time to switch off?
I often wake up in the middle of the night with my thoughts turning straight to the pandemic. But I’m being careful not to burn myself out. What really saps my energy is conflict. It really affects me and I can get quite down about it. Fortunately, it’s a rare occurrence! Most of the interactions I have are 
positive – in the end, people understand that we all have the same goal.

Do you see any positives to all this disruption?
The picture we had of ourselves and of Switzer­land is being severely challenged – and that’s a painful process. On a positive note, it’s a chance to learn and ask questions: How quickly can we put new technologies into practice? How far have we come with digitalisation? As a scientist, it’s exciting to come out of my bubble and help tackle these pressing problems.

How about for you personally?
These are tough times, and sometimes I’m just exhausted. But I’m also fortunate to have this opportunity. It’s difficult to be sitting around and feeling powerless in a crisis of this magnitude. I’m lucky enough to be able to lend a hand – and that’s a huge privilege.