BSE research was set back by up to two years when it lost out on funding after the scramble for resources sparked by government cuts in the late 1980s, it was claimed this week.
Research into the possibility that BSE in cattle tissue might affect humans could have progressed far quicker if funding had been targeted at the appropriate research institute, according to farmer and businessman Maitland Mackie, who chaired the animal research committee of the Agriculture and Food Research Council from 1987 to 1992.
Dr Mackie told Radio 4's Farming Today programme that funding should have gone directly to the Neuro-Pathogenesis Unit, in Edinburgh. The NPU was already carrying out research into scrapie, a disease in sheep that is similar to BSE.
But Dr Mackie said that a lack of information about how long it would take to get BSE research off the ground led to his committee recommending that the cash for BSE research went to the Institute of Animal Health in Berkshire and to the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Surrey. His claim was made before yesterday's publication of the Phillips report into the BSE crisis.
Dr Mackie said: "The scientific fraternity advising us should have alerted us to the time it took to get research started. I believe the research was set back, certainly one but probably two years, by not having the common sense to put new funding into the hands of the teams who knew most about these types of diseases."
Dr Mackie said that many scientists on the committee, or advising it, were employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and included the heads of government-funded institutes.
Institute heads were at the time wrestling with government cuts. This meant making careful decisions on how funding should be distributed in the face of a programme of amalgamations and redundancies that would take the number of government-funded institutes from 28 to eight.
The picture is complicated by the fact that the NPU had been part of the IAH since 1986. So the IAH could distribute funding to the NPU for research into BSE. Dr Mackie's point is that had his committee been aware of all the facts, it could have recommended that the money went directly to the NPU to establish a BSE research unit in Edinburgh.
Geoff Oldham, scientific assistant to IAH director Chris Bostock, said that money was given to the NPU but he was unable to say how much. Dr Oldham said: "All expertise would have been brought to bear to get the project up and running."