Back to website

Why do issues such as the BSE and Foot and Mouth epidemics damage the reputation of UK scientists?

Epidemics such as BSE and foot and mouth require better media skills and sometimes more honesty from scientists if the public and policy makers are going to be able to understand the complex issues surrounding these diseases and make appropriate decisions. This is one of the messages contained in a lecture given by Professor Roy Anderson FRS from Imperial College, London, at the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen on Friday April 26th. The lecture, "Epidemics of infectious diseases in livestock: the interface between scientific research and policy formulation," is the first in a new series jointly organised by the Scottish Agricultural and Biological Research Institutes and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

One of the key interfaces that Professor Anderson discussed was how scientists communicate with the media. "Many of the scientific issues in epidemics such as BSE and the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic were quite complex, and included many unknowns about future impacts of possible interventions or even how to measure some key factors. But the media wanted their science in sound bites even though these issues were not amenable to being easily explained in a few sentences," said Professor Anderson.

"The media coverage of the science associated with the foot and mouth and BSE epidemics was not as good as it could have been and it has had a knock-on effect in that several surveys suggest that the public don't trust scientists as much as they used to," said Professor Anderson.

In his lecture, Professor Anderson emphasized the need for more and better training of scientists so that they are able to explain complex issues succinctly and without the use of jargon. Professor Anderson believes that Universities must accept greater responsibility for training students, particularly postgraduate students and encourage scientists to be more open with the public.

"Scientists should also be more prepared to admit a lack of knowledge. Many find it difficult to say `we haven't got a clue' or `there's no information on this currently available`. For instance, at the start of the FMD outbreak there were huge gaps in our knowledge about the potential effectiveness of the emergency vaccine, about possible transmission routes and about UK animal movements," he said.

There is a challenge for the media as well: "I actually believe that the UK public would like to see more science in their newspapers, particularly science that is relevant to their everyday lives," said Professor Anderson.

Professor Anderson ended his lecture by looking at different approaches to risk analysis and in particular under circumstances where there is very little known about a particular problem. "I believe that in some of the diseases that we are dealing with, such as vCJD in humans, where we can't actually conduct scientific research to provide us with any answers, we may be able to learn something from engineers and physical scientists. They use powerful mathematical and statistical methods to calculate the risks associated with, for example, aerodynamical issues in air flight and soil structure below foundations for large buildings where many uncertainties surround prediction."


For further information please contact Sue Bird, PR Manager on 07711 093417.