'BSE lessons not learnt'

June 29, 2001

Crucial lessons from the BSE crisis have not been learnt by the government, Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, a former member of the BSE inquiry committee, has warned.

Scientific expertise remained untapped by civil servants for weeks at the start of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, despite recommendations in the Phillips report.

Professor Ferguson-Smith, head of the veterinary cytogenetics research group at Cambridge University, argued that the government should make prompt use of comprehensive sources of expertise such as the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal colleges of medicine when faced with such crises.

Beyond the immediate advice that the members of such bodies can provide, they are also in touch with scientists across the United Kingdom and abroad who could pinpoint the individuals who are best placed to provide guidance.

In the conclusions of the BSE inquiry report was a recommendation on locating expertise: "Where animal or public health is at stake, resort should be had to the best source of scientific advice, wherever it is to be found, without delay."

Yet it was a month after the first case of foot-and-mouth was reported that Sir John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency, and David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, put together an expert group to advise on how the problem might best be tackled.

"The government failed to make the best use of scientists. This is an illustration of the ways in which the lessons of the emergence of BSE do not seem to have been taken on board," Professor Ferguson-Smith said.

"I think some people have not paid sufficient attention to the BSE inquiry report, partly because of the daunting task of tackling all 16 volumes."

A spokesman for the government's Office of Science and Technology said Professor King had consulted with Sir Robert May, president of the Royal Society, about who should join the expert foot-and-mouth group.

But Peter Cotgreave, secretary of the pressure group Save British Science, said this did not happen soon enough.

He added that the net for experts should in future be cast wider than the Royal Society, to bring in less mainstream scientific views that might have had something useful to contribute.

Professor Ferguson-Smith suggested that the society's ten sectional committees, set up to consider new fellows, might also be able to help track down expertise at short notice. He said: "It provides a wonderful source of information on who does what in science."

A Royal Society spokesman said there were no plans to consider this - and that its science advice section and specific-issue working groups already advised the government when asked.

"The society is always keen to help devote its resources to help serve the public interest in this way," he said.

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