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Published in the February 2002 edition of Science & Public Affairs, a magazine produced by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and published here with their kind permission.



DEFRA 's newly-retired Chief Scientist, Dr David Shannon, tells  Wendy Barnaby that he is unhappy about the way scientists advised the Government on foot and mouth and the Government 's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor David King , takes issue with Dr Shannon.


The committee which advised the Government's Chief Scientist, Professor David King, during the foot and mouth outbreak, 'had enormous influence on policy without having formal responsibility for the consequences of its advice', says Dr David Shannon, who retired from his post of Chief Scientist of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) at the end of 2001.

 

In an exclusive interview with Science and Public Affairs, Dr Shannon expresses unease about the way advice on the outbreak was given to the Government and is keen to ensure that any lessons are learned through the various enquiries that have been established.

 

 'I believe there is still room for improvement and it is important for science in Government that we get the mechanics right. The handling of scientific evidence will be increasingly important when the new legislation on animal health is agreed,' says Dr Shannon.

 

 It is no secret that there has been tension within the expert committee of epidemiologists who played a leading role in advising the Government during the outbreak, and between it and DEFRA (the successor to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, MAFF), whose veterinary scientists have to cope with the disease on the ground.

 

With the benefit of hindsight Dr Shannon questions whether the claims about the committee still hold, namely that 'the group of experts set up to inform the Chief Scientific Adviser's advice on the current foot and mouth disease epidemic draws together a wide range of experts, including epidemiologists and animal biologists.

 

New participants have been brought in as necessary, including those recognised to have outlying views.' Dr Shannon says:

'Initially, the David King constituted scientific advisory committee would have looked considerably different, he suggests.

'It was an unusual group,' continues Dr Shannon, 'in that it grew out of a perceived need to engage the well-established UK epidemiological modeling groups and developed from there. It was a group on which David King drew in formulating his advice to the Government. For the most part it was an informal grouping of those who could attend, although as time went on increasing efforts were made to clear advice with those who could not attend a particular meeting.

Inputs were to some extent determined by the time contributors had available and this proved particularly difficult for those deeply involved in day-to-day tasks required to fight the disease. 'At one point I formed the view that it should be reconstituted as a formal scientific advisory committee to Government because I was concerned about the way it operated,' discloses Dr Shannon. 'It had enormous power with no direct responsibility, it seemed to me. It was driving what the Department was doing - and of course if there were any flaws in its composition or mode of operation you could have a flawed mechanism driving policy.' And were there any flaws? Dr Shannon smiles and says he should not pre-empt the results of the official committees of enquiry into the way the epidemic was handled.

 

Neither the Royal Society's enquiry into scientific aspects of epidemics in livestock nor Dr Iain Anderson's 'lessons learned' enquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak are expected to report before mid-2002.

 

In explaining the effects of the committee's composition, however, DEFRA's retired Chief Scientist becomes more critical. 'The initial modelling was done without a full understanding of the disease and the nature of the industry and its practices,' he argues. 'Some of these features were brought to bear as time went on. Clearly in retrospect it needed more independent expertise on diagnostics, practical expertise on the use of vaccines, expertise on serology. In particular the role of serology in the eventual eradication of the disease was not accepted initially and hence was not given priority until later in the epidemic.'

 

Serology - testing blood samples - was increasingly used to help declare areas free from the virus and to facilitate movements of livestock in high risk and at risk counties. 'Secondly,' continues Dr Shannon, 'the modeling was carried out in a strict disease control mode without taking account of the environmental consequences of the outcomes. The absence of the full range of sciences meant that many of these issues had to be debated elsewhere and subsequently.'

 

The retired Chief Scientist wants to make it clear that he believes the modeling was extremely important and the developments in this outbreak will be pivotal in addressing future animal disease outbreaks. 'I am a keen supporter of modeling,' he says, 'but the limitations need to be realised and pointed out. This time round it could not predict where outbreaks were going to occur so it tended to explain, in retrospect, what had happened. In essence, it was a generic process and could not take account of the largely idiosyncratic behaviour which led to the continuing tail.'

 

And there were indirect benefits of the committee: 'The committee and the involvement of the Prime Minister permitted the much-needed financial and other resources to flow.' In the end, however, Dr Shannon is sceptical about the importance of the models alone for controlling the outbreak. 'I believe the measures that were being taken did, in fact, bring the epidemic under control. In any case the targets set by the modeling (although important) were seldom achieved and (if I recall correctly) were achieved rather less well in Devon where the disease came under control rather quickly than in Cumbria where the disease lingered.'

 

The picture Dr Shannon paints of the way scientific advice was given to the Government during the foot and mouth outbreak hardly accords with the Government's standards for scientific advice and policy making. These are set out in Guidelines 2000 (updated, for scientific committees, last December).

 

Their key requirements are that departments should think ahead and identify the issues on which they need scientific advice, gather a wide range of advice from the best sources (particularly when there is scientific uncertainty), and publish the scientific advice and all relevant papers.

 

Dr Shannon acknowledges that putting the guidelines into practice is proving quite difficult, although he maintains that a lot of effort is going into implementing them and that they have changed attitudes. All of DEFRA's research is on the Web.

 

When his successor (Professor Howard Dalton, head of biological sciences at Warwick University) is in post, the Department is planning to initiate regular briefings for science journalists on its scientific work. Having been Chief Scientist at MAFF since 1986 and then at DEFRA, Dr Shannon has been in the thick of both the BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks. He distils several lessons from these cataclysms for the way scientific advice should be given to government.

 

'Good scientific committees need quite a lot of work to set them up and allow them to work effectively,' he says. 'Guidelines 2000 was written as general guidance to departments and with formal advisory committees in mind; nobody's written a rulebook for informal committees.'

 

He also wants to see an end to the prominence of what he calls tabloid scientists: 'The figures we see on our TV screens every day, who do not give a balanced picture.' Urged to clarify how a more rounded presentation of foot and mouth would have changed things, Dr Shannon finally says: 'In my view the limitations in the modeling were such that it presented an exaggerated picture. 'The public had its eyes opened to science through the experience of the BSE epidemic,' reflects the ret Chief Scientist. 'It learned that science is mainly evidence, not fact; that it can change over time; that there's frequently not just one scientific view - there may well be conflicting views - and that scientific evidence is subject to the weaknesses of all other sorts of evidence: such as the motivation of the provider, funding issues and even competition between disciplines. Some scientists want their own discipline to be the one to solve the problem. That's been a bit of a problem with BSE: "Unless we solve it with this technique, we haven't solved it." We should seek to inform the public and let it arrive at its own view. And experts must listen to the public; that's one of the important things we must do much more of. Understand where the public's coming from. For example, about vaccination for foot and mouth.'

 

In his retirement - apart from reading Tolstoy and other classics - Dr Shannon is intending to maintain his interest in science and research management - possibly with a developing world slant. He also hopes to write about science in government. It promises to make very interesting reading.

 

 

 

The Government 's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor David King, responds to Dr David Shannon

 

1.I have not previously engaged in public debate with members of the group who helped me deliver scientific advice to Ministers on foot and mouth disease. I am making an exception in this case only to put right some of the most important inaccuracies in this reported interview with David Shannon.

 

2.In tackling the foot and mouth outbreak, the Government was able to draw on the work of some of the world's leading experts, in epidemiology and in
animal health, through the science group set up, at the request of the
Prime Minister on 24 March, to help me advise him and the Cabinet on the control of the epidemic. The group was broad based from the start. David Shannon, as MAFF's Chief Scientist, was a member, alongside vets and virologists from Government, the Institute of Animal Health and from the field.

 

3.The epidemiological models provided strong scientific underpinning for
the advice we gave to Government. There were four models built in very
different ways, all of which supported the advice we gave. The models used data provided by Government, in a groundbreaking partnership. Ample time was given to discussing the underlying assumptions of each of the models,
their validity and their applicability to the field.

 

4.The group was fully alive to the importance of serology, not least
because one of its regular participants was the head of the laboratory concerned. The role of serology in declaring areas of the country free of FMD was always a key part of the strategy we advised. I personally mentioned it on numerous occasions in media briefings, on radio and TV, and in giving evidence to Parliamentary committees. To avoid any misunderstanding I
should make it clear that serology is testing blood to check for virus
antibodies. It cannot eradicate a disease.

 

5.Environmental consequences were dealt with by other Government bodies - the Environment Agency, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (as it was then) and the Department of Health in particular - and discussed at the, regularly held, Cabinet Office meetings together with my group's advice. There was continual feedback into the science group's deliberations, which ensured that these issues, which were outside its immediate remit, were taken into account.

 

6.The Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines on scientific advice issued in July 2000 provide that Government should draw on a wide range of advice
from the best sources, and should publish that advice and all relevant papers. These requirements were met. Throughout the course of the epidemic, those on the group have published papers and have participated in media presentations. I have been happy to openly explain the advice I was giving to the media and in other for a, at every stage of the epidemic.

 

7.We must look to the enquiries now in hand to learn the full lessons from the outbreak and its handling. I shall want to draw on their findings as I take forward my programme of work to strengthen the input of science to government policy and its implementation. One lesson that is clear to me now is that, faced with a disease, which spreads as fast as FMD, speed is of the essence. A formally constituted committee could have taken months to get going. With the help of an informal group, put together fast and working flat out, I was able to provide the best available scientific advice to Government at the time when it was most needed. We must now build on that experience.

 

published in the February 2002 edition of Science & Public Affairs, a magazine produced
by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and published here with their kind permission.

 

Passed to warmwell.com by Jane Barribal - Farmtalking

( See also the Telegraph article by Robert Uhlig that followed this.)