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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
BSE: lessons for science?
John Gummer
Agriculture Minister John Gummer used his daughter to promote the safety of beef
The long-awaited report into the BSE epidemic in the UK will be published on Thursday. It is expected to severely criticise civil servants and politicians. The role of scientists in the crisis will also be examined, as BBC News Online environment correspondent Alex Kirby reports.

Whoever else is blamed by the BSE inquiry report into the link between mad cow disease and its human equivalent, variant CJD, it is hard to see how the scientists involved can be faulted.

They told the politicians what they knew, and also what they suspected. The devastating announcement by the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, on 20 March 1996, that there was a probable link between BSE and CJD, took many of them aback.

The science had changed fundamentally almost overnight. Exactly a month before the announcement, on 20 February 1996, the head of the CJD surveillance unit, Dr Robert Will gave a talk to the Parliamentary Food and Health Forum.

He said later: "I did not then believe there was sufficient scientific evidence to make a judgement about whether the cases of new variant CJD were truly novel.

"Nor did I believe that there was sufficient scientific evidence to reach a judgement about a causal link between these cases and BSE.

Key issue

"There was a real possibility in 1996 that the young cases were not actually new and were not linked to BSE."

So a key issue which many of those awaiting the report will hope it has tackled is how to balance a lack of scientific certainty with a wealth of scientific suspicion.

They will be looking for a robust restatement of the need for the precautionary principle.

If government ministers had been prepared to act on it ten or even five years ago, they would have acted very differently.

Instead of refusing to go beyond what the scientists could tell them was certain, they would have taken much more notice of what the scientists told them was not impossible.

If that is perhaps the most fundamental lesson waiting to be drawn from the official handling of the crisis, another is the need to make sure that regulations, once enacted, are in fact observed.

The UK has a long and sorry reputation for being "over-regulated and under-enforced", and the BSE shambles illustrates this perfectly.

Temptation

Five years after Parliament agreed suspect cattle parts (brains, spinal cords and other offal) should be kept out of the human food chain, beef carcasses ready for the butchers' shops were found with the offal still in place.

Even last week, vaccines using material from British cattle were found to be still in use. Ministers and their officials should have shown more scepticism, as they should when they offered only 50% compensation for cattle with BSE, a standing temptation to unscrupulous farmers to send their animals for slaughter in order to obtain the market price for them.

The report ought also to tackle the problem of who is responsible for ensuring that disinterested research is commissioned and funded. In the 1980s there was a vogue for arguing that the market should increasingly pay for research, which meant it often determined what research was done.

In that atmosphere, it was hard to be sure some of the most basic research was undertaken when it should have been.

The BSE episode has made many people distrust science, a distrust which manifests itself now in the entrenched attitudes to genetically-modified crops.

But in fact the scientists did the best they could. It was their official masters and mistresses who failed to act on the warnings they gave.

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