When is a badger cull not a badger cull? The answer, it seems, is when it is one arranged by the new UK government. Faced with growing unease about the coming public-sector cuts, the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government last week sought morale-boosting rural support by floating plans that would allow farmers to slaughter the animals. In doing so, when it comes to setting polices based on science, ministers have managed only to shoot themselves in the foot.
The plans are designed to arrest the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, a long-standing problem that the government says cost £63 million (US$98 million) in England last year alone.
Announcing the proposal, agriculture minister James Paice said there was no doubt that badgers are a significant reservoir for the disease. He said that action to control the disease in the animals was needed to curb the spread. And he claimed that his decision was based on sound science.
He got the first part right. Badgers do carry and transmit the disease, but the benefits of killing them are much less clear. Mindful of the powerful animal-welfare lobby in Britain, successive governments have cited this lack of evidence in their refusal to bow to pressure from the agricultural community, which has demanded that badgers are controlled. Even the ambitious Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) experiment, set up in 1997, failed to resolve the matter. Although culling did seem to reduce bovine TB inside target zones, the rate increased outside. In a paper published in February this year, members of the government's Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG), now disbanded, concluded that “badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain”.
The coalition government consulted a separate group of academics, who serve on the Bovine TB Science Advisory Body of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The group concluded in June that the ISG's statement was “problematic” and should not be applied to all culls.
Paice, a former farmer who promised action on bovine TB while in opposition, prefers this interpretation, even though it falls far short of endorsing a cull. To deal with the conflicting views of the trials so far, Paice has devised a new solution. His cull strategy has not been tested — by anyone. Rather than the RBCT's well-organized teams working to eradicate badgers in a controlled manner, Paice foresees consortia of farmers given licences to blast away as they see fit. Farmers will have to fund the work themselves, and the government's own figures show that the costs to farmers will outweigh the financial gains. This must raise serious doubts about the long-term viability of controlling badgers in this way. Vaccination could be used, but Paice admits that this may not be practical or effective. And, as he reduced planned vaccine studies in June from six sites to one, that situation is unlikely to change soon.
Paice is wrestling with a difficult issue. The former Labour government also stumbled over the science of badger culling. After the ISG's final report came out strongly against a cull, a team including the former chief scientific adviser David King reached the opposite conclusion. The Labour government eventually decided not to force the issue in the way that Paice and his colleagues seem determined to do now.
The fate of badgers may not be the most pressing issue facing UK researchers today. But the handling of the situation offers the first clue about how the government will approach scientific advice. It should leave those who promote evidence-based policy feeling anxious. With weightier topics such as climate change, transgenic crops and research funding on their to-do list, ministers need to wise up, and fast.