Professor Roy Anderson, from the Science Advisory Council, on whether we have learnt anything from the BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks?
Today Programme July 7 2004
John Humphrys: What if we get another BSE or Foot and mouth outbreak? Have we learnt the lessons of the past? There are plenty of people who think we haven't. The government promised earlier this year to set up a "Science Advisory Council." Now they have done just that, its chairman has been announced. He is Professor Roy Anderson of Imperial College. Good Morning to you. What's your job?
Professor Roy Anderson: Well, the Science Advisory Council, which is an independent non-governmental public body, is to provide DEFRA, the department for environment, food and rural affairs, with scientific advice across the very wide range of activities that the Department has on its portfolio. And these range of course from genetically modified crops through global warming to epidemic outbreaks of infectious disease to air pollution and so on so it is a very, very broad scientific remit that the Department has and I think it is very encouraging that they have decided to set up an independent body to provide them with as good scientific advice as they can get.
John Humphrys: Well, you could look at that from the other point I suppose and say that it is slightly frightening if they have not been getting that advice consistently for the last - er (laughs) five hundred years. What's been happening?
Roy Anderson: Well, I think it's fair to say that in the past, and remember this is the past, government departments have attempted to sort of seek scientific advice internally. There's been degrees of secrecy about what that advice is underpinning policy formulation. With the new department which was merged from the two departments of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and the Department of the Environment to form this thing called DEFRA and there's a very open policy about how they receive scientific advice. And I think the most important thing for this Science Advisory Council is to make their advice public and to gain the trust of the public in the sense of dealing with what are often quite difficult issues.
John Humphrys: So you'd make your advice public simultaneously? In other words, government would say to you, lets have a look at whether there is,I don't know...BSE in sheep, for instance..and what ever you told the government you would simultaneously tell us?
Roy Anderson: Exactly, the advice would be published on the web and would be available to all, and some of these Science Advisory Council meetings each year would be open to the public for them to attend and see how the discussions develop.
John Humphrys: And..but would that work in practice? I mean if you take something highly controversial such as GM, and whatever group of people were set up under your aegis to take decisions, said "Actually, we think GM is a rotten idea," and that flies in the face of government policy, then what happens?
Roy Anderson: Well..er..as a scientist, all one can do is to try to present the arguments as concisely and as precisely as possible, and my own personal view about how one should deal with contentious issues is to make that information available to the public in a simple, easily understandable form and the Science Advisory Council has a role in doing that.
John Humphrys: Are you likely to be a somewhat controversial chairman, given that you played quite a big part, as I understand it, in the foot and mouth outbreak, that is to say you approved the contiguous cull policy and many people say that that was quite the wrong policy and resulted in millions of perfectly healthy animals being killed and it wouldn't be done again, we'd have a vaccination policy next time.
Roy Anderson: Well, that's one view. My expertise lies in a particular area but as chairman of the committee my task is to collate views from a very expert group of individuals, covering a broad range of science from meteorology to fisheries to ecology, and also non-scientific representatives, people dealing with the economics of the rural economy, as it were and individuals representing consumers and other groups.
John Humphrys: Would you now, with the benefit of hindsight, have offered different advice to deal with the foot and mouth outbreak?
Roy Anderson: I certainly wouldn't..
John Humphrys: You'd stay with the same?
Roy Anderson: I'd stay with the same advice - but clearly as time evolves and new scientific advances are made, it enables us to look again at options of vaccination and field diagnosis for some of these very important infectious diseases and hence science changes over time and therefore policy advice changes.
John Humphrys: Professor Anderson, many thanks.