The government is commissioning a new research programme aimed at preventing epidemics such as foot-and-mouth disease.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs expects to announce the first award under its horizon-scanning science programme within a month. This will focus on strategies for biosecurity, aiming to uncover potential future threats on which the government should concentrate.
Tom Steinberg, a member of Defra's horizon-scanning unit, said: "Just as soldiers might scan the horizon with binoculars, we are scanning the horizons of science, looking for important issues that have just come into view."
The biosecurity project will look at diseases, pests and alien species that could disrupt Britain. These will include new diseases and infectious diseases present in other countries that could enter the UK. The research will investigate worst-case scenarios, including the cost to the economy.
The Royal Society's inquiry into infectious diseases in livestock, published last year in the wake of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, estimated that the government spent £15 billion dealing with foot-and-mouth, BSE and swine fever.
Its final report stressed that cash savings could have been "vast" had the government spent the previous 15 years developing vaccines or making cutting-edge diagnostics available.
Defra hopes horizon-scanning will improve its ability to deal with an uncertain future.
Mr Steinberg said: "Horizon-scanning is not easy. The scientific world is a complex place, with many thousands of fields of study, any of which could uncover welcome or unwelcome surprises at any moment."
After biosecurity, the department plans to commission research into sustainability issues: how the food chain will change over the next 20 years; the future of the countryside; tools for forecasting the development of sustainable rural policy; a new approach to fisheries modelling; and alternative futures for marine ecosystems.
The programme will avoid topics already under investigation, such as genetically modified foods. "Instead, we are looking for the next GM-like issue so that preliminary research can be commissioned and relevant parts of government given early notification," Mr Steinberg said.
Defra is the first government department to launch a horizon- scanning research programme, but other departments have similar plans.