Ministers mistrusted on health and science

May 4, 2001

People are three times more likely to trust farmers than government ministers to tell the truth about foot-and-mouth disease.

A survey carried out by Nick Pidgeon of the University of East Anglia's Centre for Environmental Risk also found much concern on food safety issues. Three-quarters of the sample said the public is insufficiently consulted.

The study, conducted at the peak of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, was based on 473 respondents from Norwich and Bude, Cornwall.

Professor Pidgeon told a meeting at the Royal Society that the surprisingly high response rate (almost 80 per cent) indicated "a very high willingness and motivation to engage with this issue".

The findings are the first work in a new five-year project on risk, which will examine public perceptions, institutional change and stakeholder participation. It also aims to advance the debate on the public understanding of science.

"Scientists must understand the public as much as the public needs to understand science," Professor Pidgeon said. With risk now as much a question of politics as of economics, he said, there must be a fundamental shift in UK risk policy.

The £1. million "Programme on Understanding Risk", funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will be based at the UEA centre. It will also draw on expertise from the Institute of Food Research, Norwich, which will study food risks and consumer choice; Brunel University, which will focus on public understanding of science; and the University of Wales, Cardiff, which will study institutional risk.

• Tension between veterinarians and epidemiologists has helped to make the government's foot-and-mouth science group the driving force behind policy to combat the epidemic, writes Steve Farrar.

David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, told the House of Commons science and technology select committee that bringing together the two views had produced clear advice after the first weeks of the outbreak.

"There is creative tension between the scientists who are concerned with modelling the disease and those scientists and vets concerned with the disease itself," Professor King said. Last week's THES survey revealed that some professors of veterinary science felt that infectious disease experts were being ignored in favour of epidemiologists.

Among the team of experts drafted into the group have been epidemiologists from the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency who are modelling the handling of the crisis itself.

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