Probing OCTA

I’m trying to comprehend the rationale for the resolution filed last week by members of the House of Representatives, seeking to probe “in aid of legislation” the credentials, affiliations, and activities of a group of academics collectively known as OCTA Research.

The group has made a name for itself by issuing regular projections of the course the COVID-19 pandemic is taking in our country. These projections, drawn from data analysis, are usually accompanied by recommendations addressed to decision-makers in both the public and private sectors.

Any work of this nature, that has important implications to the management of a pandemic — especially when it claims to be scientific — definitely needs to be scrutinized and evaluated. My concern is whether a congressional hearing is the right forum for this.

Debates on the theories and methodologies used in scientific inquiry normally take place in academic institutions, research conferences, and scholarly journals. Indeed, because of their public import and implications for policy, even arcane discussions are sometimes reported in the popular media. In like manner, political bodies that craft laws or execute policies occasionally enlist the services of experts and scientists to help them with the technical aspects of their work.

But it is strange that the scientists belonging to this private research group — rather than the public officials actually in charge of the government response to the pandemic — are themselves the focus of the proposed congressional inquiry. As far as I know, the OCTA research team does not make decisions that bind the entire nation. Its work is limited to sharing its own views of what is happening and what needs to be done. No one is obliged to believe them.

If the government’s own scientists and technical experts strongly disagree with OCTA’s projections and pronouncements, they should say so — exactly as the infectious disease expert and National Institutes of Health director for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Dr. Edsel Salvaña has recently done. Academic forums can then be organized where the principals of the contending positions are invited to present their findings. Where facts and their interpretations are freely debated, and where the only power that is respected is the power of the better argument, truth has a good chance of thriving.

A congressional hearing is hardly the ideal place to settle contending scientific claims — unless the main question that concerns the legislators is the correctness or adequacy of the state’s own handling of the COVID-19 health crisis. To invoke Congress’ oversight functions to justify undertaking a probe primarily of the credentials, affiliations, and funding sources of a team of scientists who sometimes express views different from those of government—that, to me, is a misuse of congressional time.

More than this, it could be taken as a form of harassment, a muzzling of independent voices. If the OCTA researchers are guilty of issuing alarmist and unfounded pronouncements, it is their peers in academe and their respective disciplines that should call them out and challenge their findings.

Not being a mathematician or an epidemiologist, I am myself not in a position to assess OCTA’s current research on the pandemic. But I can personally vouch for the integrity of at least two of its members—the mathematician Guido David (no relation) and the political scientist Ranjit Rye. They grew up and studied in the same UP campus where I have taught and lived. Their respective fathers, the poet and physiological psychologist FG David and the Asian Studies professor Ajit S. Rye, were my colleagues. I am certain the sons have lived as honorably as their parents.

The one thing though that gives me pause about the OCTA group is their occasional foray into political polling. Their recent projections of the electoral chances of possible presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the 2022 elections came out of the blue and seemed out of place. Many people have known them as an independent group of scientists who, using government’s own data, have fearlessly projected the rise and fall of coronavirus infections with tremendous accuracy. (In contrast, government’s portrayal of the pandemic and its often-uncoordinated attempts to contain it usually leave us wondering what kind of data, or what kind of analysis, drives its decisions.)

So, what in heaven’s name did the OCTA group think they were doing when suddenly they were tracking not the coronavirus but the fortunes of politicians?

Unknown to many, OCTA Research was originally founded to conduct opinion research, policy studies, and data analysis, and offer consultancy. The pandemic and the need for data-driven information that came with it motivated the team to do its own mathematical modeling of the spread of the disease.

The group’s two most prominent public faces — Dr. Guido David and Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, the Fil-Am molecular biologist, Catholic priest, and visiting professor at the University of Santo Tomas — have come across in their media appearances as the embodiment of scientific clarity and political disinterest. One could hardly associate them with political crystal-ball gazing.

Perhaps, in the naïve hope that the credibility they earned in the monitoring of the pandemic would help relaunch their political consultancy services, OCTA crossed disciplinal boundaries in a jarring way. The outcome of that, sadly, has been to cast doubt on their credibility as scientists.