Red faces, white coats, blue funk

April 5, 1996

The BSE saga has provided the unseemly picture of a government hiding behind the white coats of science. Tim Lang describes how it feels to be an adviser to government.

Last month's extraordinary developments in the BSE saga have lessons for us all. They have especially significant lessons for anyone in the world of science.

After eight years of categorical statements from government and its scientific committees that beef was "100 per cent safe", the news about the ten CJD cases shattered complacency. Amid the welter of messages, and the bitter in-fighting that ensued, in which I was involved, one message came out strongly: that government had backed only one interpretation of BSE's possible aetiology, and in formulating its strategy for handling BSE and the public had drawn from too narrow a pool of expertise. Is one moral from the debacle that government's handling of its scientific establishment, too, needs a shake-up? Like many, I think it is. But the more important and delicate issue is what sort of shake-up, and in what direction?

I have, for the last two years, been sitting on two government committees. One is on school meals, the other on low income, both in the world of food and nutrition - deeply sensitive issues. I should make it clear that I am not known as a friend of this government. I have been, and am, highly critical of its food policy, which is unduly commerce-driven. I was therefore surprised to be asked on to two committees. Was this, I and my colleagues and friends in the world of food asked, a clever assimilation exercise? Our conclusion was that this was good news, that participation is an opportunity. And, as one other, similarly asked put it, we had no chance of an MBE anyway.

But back to the BSE. Why had it taken so long to include public health specialists in the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee? Why had the Government put all its (our) money on one model of the disease? Why had it not explored ideas and arguments, let alone claims of a test, proposed from other quarters? And why were there no consumer, let alone other relevant specialisms represented?

In private, over the past six years, when I have asked these questions to government or its scientific advisers, the responses have ranged from "the alternative theories are loony" and "no one else can replicate them" to "if they were worth backing, the due process would have selected them for funding". As is now more widely known, the treatment of some individuals has been at best bizarre and at worst worthy of conspiracy theorists.

These issues surfaced well before last month and have fuelled public scepticism in the media. So when the crisis took off two weeks ago, public opinion quickly moved from a mix of acceptance and latent scepticism to one of anger and outright rejection. Believe you me, it takes a lot to get the Consumers Association to come out as strongly as it did. I have never known the consumer movement so angry or united.

But we should be cautious about viewing what happened just as the poor use of science and scientists. There were no levers to pull; no stark choices as to good or bad ends. The problem is that in an area of uncertainty, the public had been sold, with the collusion of scientists, an inappropriate aura of knowledge.

Everyone likes to think they choose their diet. Everyone likes to feel they are in control. Yet here, in the face of a shattering shift from certainty to uncertainty, the public was being told to listen and eat up with nanny. This, from a government which has hectored us all about the need to get the nanny state off our backs. Rather than dismissing the public's reaction as irrational, we all need to recognise that the scientific advisers have tacitly colluded in this process.

And what of my two committees? Since I have not signed the Official Secrets Act, I can tell all. First, the committees were strengthened by a wide range of expertise. Could the recent widening of Seac's membership be a sign of improvement here - which also signalled an end to the "100 per cent safe" nonsense. Everyone had to listen.

Second, the committees were set up to respond to years of outside pressure and campaigning, so there was an interest in all to try to hammer out some consensus. Some of us nearly resigned from one committee, because one government committee refused to allow us to talk about money. We were scandalised, until we realised that this enabled us to explore issues crying out to receive support other than financial. If the Treasury is not on your back, you are not hurting. Which is why what matters now over BSE is not Seac, but Kenneth Clarke and his tax cuts. Put it differently, science, like committees is only as good as its context. Only join up if your hopes are high, your expectations lower and you do not expect government to take notice of the small print, the provisos and the public.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, Thames Valley University.

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