Dr Alan Dickinson's work on scrapie is of the first importance
In the weeks preceding the final stages of the ill-advised Animal Health Bill ..
... it is salutary to read a letter written in January 2001, by Dr Alan G Dickinson to the now defunct Select
Committee on Agriculture. He has been described by Professor Hugh Pennington as " an intellectually rigorous man who puts science a long way ahead of office politics" and who "resembles the image that the public has of the brilliant, unworldly scientist". Dr Dickinson raises the issues of MAFF's insistence on being exclusively in charge during the BSE crisis, feigned "consultation" over MAFF's National Scrapie Plan, and the scientific flaws inherent in such a plan.
MAFF/DEFRA's obsession with control, the race for quick-fix answers, the waste of funding, the fundamental ignorance of the science, so deplored by Dr Dickinson just before the coming of FMD, were also to result in the misery experienced by many rural communities in the following months when massive slaughter took the place of a considered and modern disease control policy.
His letter is highly relevant to the policies of FMD control in 2001; the disproportionate influence of a Science Committee overriding veterinary and virological expertise, the covering-up of errors committed by MAFF/DEFRA, the ignorance surrounding TSE's - and the emergence of the Animal Health Bill which compounds them all.
"too prudent or intimidated to
publicise their opinions."
Dr Dickinson's criticisms in January 2001 of MAFF, the government approach to science, and the Phillips Report, although most tactfully and gently phrased, nevertheless reveal the extent to which independent science has disappeared from the area of actual policy making.
"During the BSE epidemic there has been extensive waste of the
large, mainly MAFF-controlled, research funds. This is a view shared by
many of those with proven TSE-research expertise, some of whom are still
involved in the research and therefore too prudent or intimidated to
publicise their opinions.
" I consider it entirely inappropriate that any government department or
group of departments (or their agencies) should control research on
basic scientific issues, especially areas so near the frontier of
knowledge. Such direct control should only involve practical and applied
topics in well known areas. The research role of departments should
focus almost entirely on having first-hand, comprehensive information
about "who and where" there is success, but this must be staffed on
criteria very different from present ones. Whitehall norms will need to
be changed radically, where science is involved."
They haven't been. The Ministry has had its name changed - but not its culture.
The mirage of consultation
Consultation is a buzz word more than ever before. Writing in 2001, Dr Dickinson asked (referring to the National Scrapie Plan), "Where the balance of judgement lies in the present context is dealt
with in the response to the MAFF document appended to this letter, which
is signed by four senior animal-disease scientists. It
came as a surprise that the (MAFF) booklet was issued as a "Consultation on
proposals for Phase 1-a Ram Genotyping Scheme" when there appeared to
have been several years of active support by MAFF for implementing this
scheme. It seems to have the de facto status of an ongoing programme. "
the hype surrounding the protein, PrP.
Dickinson writes, "There were two types of reason why BSE funding has been very
wastefully focused. One, from the late 1980s, was the plethora of
research committees controlling the policy and funds, hardly any of
whose members were familiar with the subject, but who were mesmerised by
the hype surrounding the protein, PrP. In 1971 I discovered the crucial
role of this protein in the pathogenesis of the disease and published
this along with a range of predictions, most of which have now been
confirmed. You may be assuming that the molecular nature of TSE agents
has been "proved" to be, simply, a modified form of this protein (a so-
called "rogue protein"), but the number of those who doubt this is
steadily growing, if only for the reason that this hypothesis has never
been able to explain the facts.......
The second reason for considerable waste of funds was that staff at
the Central Veterinary Lab, who were inexperienced with TSE research,
controlled early decisions. "
It all sounds horribly familiar. It is interesting to note that in a recent in-depth documentary on French television about the scrapie/BSE/vCJD hysteria and its destructive effect on European sheep farming, it was Dr Dickinson whose gravitas and knowledge was so deeply impressive. Peter Smith of SEAC came across as a lightweight.
"The National Sheep Association know of my long-standing concern about
the often unfounded speculations that have been damaging to their
industry during the last decade." (Dr Alan Dickinson)
" Late last year, (i.e. 2000) I was shown a copy of the glossy MAFF booklet dealing
with the scheme aimed to eradicate scrapie from British sheep by
breeding from rams carrying a particular version of the gene which codes
for the PrP protein. As I had done the pre-molecular groundwork for
this, by 20 years of selecting sheep genetically for some variants of
this gene, I am in a position to understand the potential complications.
Indeed, it was long realised that the notion of a version of the gene
that would "resist" all known (and future) strains of TSEs, may not be
This was underlined by the fact that in 10 years of searching
for a strain of scrapie agent that could break such a barrier, I had
been lucky enough to find one, with approximately this property.
Furthermore, this finding was not a surprise because the work with
scrapie in mice had taught me to avoid the notion of genetic
"resistance" to TSEs: this complication is fundamental to understanding
of the whole subject and is widely unrecognised, for example on occasion
by leading members of SEAC." ( BSE/CJD page)