Thursday, November 01, 2007

Political pressure v. science

The editorial of the scientific magazine 'Nature' has a hard hitting attack on Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the H.M Government, commenting on his recently released critique of the ISG final report. They accuse him of bowing to 'political pressure'.
The question of whether British farmers should be allowed to cull badgers, on the basis that the animals may help spread tuberculosis (TB) among cattle, is perhaps not the most momentous matter on which a government has sought scientific advice. But the mishandling of the issue by David King, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, is an example to governments of how not deal with such advice, once it has been solicited and received.

Mishandling? That 'government' had had its sticky paws in this most unholy of messes from day one of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, appears to have escaped the editors of Nature. But not of course, the diminutive professor who orchestrated the trial. If you remember (and Nature obviously does not) he was most forthcoming, in fact inordinately proud of this political skew - as we reported here In fact Profesor Bourne was quite open with the EFRAcom, as to who steered his 'trial' and how:
"We repeatedly say "culling, as conducted in the trial." It is important [that] we do say that. Those limitations were not imposed by ourselves. They were imposed by politicians."

"At the end of the day I think you have to accept that it is the price society puts on a badger. [ ] In this country there is a price on a badger and on badger welfare".

"Whatever has driven that I do not know but the fact is that a price has been put on the badger in this country which related to the way we were able to carry out our scientific work. That is exactly what we report".

That the man even mentioned the word 'science' in the same sentence as the political steer to this 'trial', is breathtakingly arrogant. That Nature have not picked up on his assertions, is worse.

We re-run a comment from CLA representative Mr. Rooney, himself a scientist, who expressed his displeasure at Bourne's discription of 'political science' most forcefully:
Perhaps I might preface my remarks by saying that I was brought up as a scientist; it was not in this discipline, but scientific principles hold, whatever the discipline. One of the things that I was taught was that, in designing an experiment to try to address an issue or a problem, you may not like the results, but you accept them. I find it deeply shocking that responsible scientists should have been prepared to undertake a research study having been told at the outset that there is a conclusion that they are not allowed to reach. I find that utterly disgraceful".

It is noteworthy that Sir David King vehemently denied any such political skew, when he appeared before the EFRAcom last week. Speaking before his appearance, Professor Bourne claimed Sir David’s report was politically motivated.
Sir David refuted the claim. “I would never give advice based on pressure from politicians,” he said.

Which is more than can be said for the author of the ISG's final report, and its chairman.


Anonymous said...


Sir David King, current chief scientific adviser to the H.M Government is not the first govt chief scientific advisor to be misrepresented by a ‘scientific journal’ in respect of ‘bTB in Badgers’.

In 1993 (issue 24 April – Page 12) New Scientist wrote in ‘Kill a Badger – Save a Cow’:

“It (the Govt) asked Solly Zuckerman (ie Lord Zuckerman OM MA MD DSc FRCP FRS) the government's chief scientific adviser until the early 1970s, to look at the problem. Zuckerman's main recommendation was for more research to find out how much cyanide was needed to gas badgers humanely”

The main recommendation was actually – and I quote directly from the report “that control operations in the affected areas, including gassing, be resumed as soon as possible …..” Not much difference there then!

I witnessed on several occasion the double act performed by Messrs Bourne & Bradshaw when publicly questioned by EFRA in London. Their performance was something Ant & Dec would have been proud of. Bourne started as the Scientist – Bradshaw the Politician. As the questions were put to them both examinees visibly morphed into the other – the scientist answered the difficult political questions; the politician the scientific! At the end of each meeting EFRA had usually achieved nothing. And the double act rose and left the room arm-In-arm and triumphant. As meeting after meeting was held – the double act got better and EFRA’s performance got worse. On some occasions it even appeared that the double act would swap clothes before the performance. Or they would play games like – “see who can say the word ‘perturbation’ most”. EFRA should have interviewed them separately.

Under this administration ‘science’, like everything else, has been ‘skewed and spun’.

Prof Krebs produced a thoroughly professional document which took ages too ‘agree’ with the incoming New Labour govt (1997) then he was knighted, then he was ennobled – and he’s very recently said that “their is no wriggle room – stick with the ISGs recommendations – don’t cull badgers”. This transmogrification (?) epitomises the scientist / politician interface. He who pays the piper calls the tune!

Under this govt it takes a man of integrity, strength and honour to remain a true scientist. I suggest Sir David King has demonstrated these qualities!

Peter Brady

Anonymous said...

But what you're saying doesn't really make sense. If the govt had leaned on the ISG to come up with the conclusion that they reached, then surely the govt would have leapt on their report and made their decision based on it. Instead, they ask someone else (David King) to critique it and he comes up with a different conclusion. Seems pretty clear from that chain of events what the govt is happy and not happy with.

Anonymous said...

Hold hard – This is the way I see it

Before the recent ‘cancelled’ general election a leaked DEFRA email stated that Scotland & Wales would get extra cash for the FMD outbreak – this ‘promise’ was cancelled along with the election. Likewise ….

In 1997 the anti cull / anti hunting folk were all over New Labour inc a massive cash donation. New Labour kicked the bTB issue into the very long grass with the Trials – 10 years later – and still in office – with 30,000 cattle being slaughtered each year – up from 6,000 in 1997 - the ISG report is issued along the original tactical lines – saying ‘LOCK UP YOUR CATTLE’. .

Now it has to do something – it has to be seen to act. Doing nothing is not an option. The govt is running out of time. Ben Bradshaw’s served his purpose and has been moved on. Lord (Jeff) Rooker (former Junior MAFF Minister) and likewise current DEFRA Minister is ploughing his lonely furrow.

New Labour is instinctively and electorally against culling but it’s running out of time – the cancelled election now presents a timeframe for action – It knows the TRIALS were utter rubbish but they served the purpose – filled up time.. The Treasury (Mr Brown!) ain’t happy paying farmers anything let alone compensation - and seeing no end to it – the EU’s just waiting to point out that it must act – if it hasn’t done so already! . The govt is running out of options. It really wants nothing to do with culling – now it’s even happy with the farmer doing it alone – it doesn’t really want to be seen culling or assisting in the culling of badgers.

Prof Bourne’s trials were limited by the constraints imposed by the then new regime. The way I read it is that it is different now but you can’t change ‘scientific methodology’ half way through a 10 years trial If Prof Bourne geared his conclusions to the current thinking he would appear ‘totally unscientific’ which even he will not do.

The govt is happy with conflicting views – it brings it to the boil nicely. But it’s still a big problem to it. The New Labour govt will go to war – deal with abortion – immigration figures - go nuclear – spend £23+ billion on Northern Rock - but it really has a problem with culling badgers – remember 800 Parliamentary hours to (sort of) ban fox-hunting! They really can’t cope with ‘things country’

I believe the badger population will be subjected to culling. Govt has no real options at the moment – and it won’t last until the next General Election.

Peter Brady