A government that asks for independent scientific advice had best be ready to take it.
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.
Back in February 1998, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) was set up under the chairmanship of John Bourne, a prominent animal-health specialist, to advise the government department that was responsible for the issue at the time. After much deliberation and the submission of several peer-reviewed papers (such as C. A. Donnelly et al. Nature 439, 843–846; 2006), the ISG issued its final report on 18 June this year. Its conclusions were robust: “Badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.”
King then proceeded to consider the ISG's report along with, in his words, “other scientific evidence”, with the help of five specialists of his choosing. On 30 July he gave his report to the secretary of state with a startlingly different conclusion. “Removal of badgers,” it states, “should take place alongside the continued application of controls on cattle.” This report was made public on 22 October.
Last week, King was rightly criticized by scientists and members of parliament for seeming to go back on the ISG's advice, which the government had itself sought. Badger culling is a politically fraught issue in Britain, pitching farmers against the equally passionate and vocal animal-protection lobby. King's motives remain unknown but his actions are likely to encourage speculation that his report was written to please the farmers.
“Political factors will ultimately overrule scientific ones when a government takes a decision in a contentious field.”
In many instances, it is likely that political factors will ultimately overrule scientific ones when a government takes a decision in a contentious field. If this is the case, then surely it would be better not to seek independent scientific advice that will inevitably be ignored. There are countless examples — the planned replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine arsenal, for instance — in which the UK government had no intention of taking independent advice, and so had the good manners not to ask for it.
In the United States, researchers are accustomed to treating the process that feeds scientific advice into the government with some suspicion. The latest incident, in which presidential science adviser John Marburger stands accused of interfering with testimony on climate change and public health first submitted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, merely reinforces this atmosphere (see page 8).
But in Britain, scientists have enjoyed a better relationship with their government and — prior to the badgers episode — little evidence has come to light of advisory recommendations from scientists being cooked or spun to match the government's intentions.
On 24 October, Bourne and King were called to account for what had happened at a meeting of the House of Commons select committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Bourne was visibly annoyed, and described King's report as “hastily written” and “superficial”. Rosie Woodroffe, an expert on conservation biology at the University of California, Davis, and an ISG member, said that the King report was riddled with “small mistakes”. In those circumstances, King's insistence that “the conclusions in my report are not very different from those that the ISG reached” ring hollow.
It would be a good idea if the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is now responsible for the matter, based its policy on the unfettered advice offered by Bourne's committee. This would be deeply appreciated not just by the badgers, but by scientists in all spheres who choose to participate in painstaking advisory processes in the earnest belief that their advice will actually make a difference to government policy.