Policy on the hoof approach to badger cull won’t tackle TB

No goalpost is safe. Tim Brookes

The chaotic failure of the government’s pilot badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire, aimed at curbing bovine TB, illustrates some of the problems that arise when policymakers ignore scientific studies and pursue their own agendas. This is, more often than not, simply to be “seen to be doing something”.

The marksmen have, unsurprisingly, missed their targets to remove 70% of badgers in the culling areas. Badger population estimates are being continuously revised and now the cull’s duration has been extended to between six and eight weeks, in the hope that targets can be met. If only those badgers didn’t keep moving the goalposts.

But this figure of 70% is entirely arbitrary anyway, picked to follow the previous protocol established by the Randomised Badger Culling Trial between 1998 and 2006. But the recommendations of this trial were also that culling be intensive, co-ordinated, and take less than two weeks, to avoid stirring up the badger population - the so-called the perturbation effect - causing them to scatter and spread bTB further.

Why follow one recommendation and not the others? The current badger culling policy lacks any scientific coherence and appears to be based solely on political posturing by Owen Paterson to please the Tory party and the National Farmers’ Union. As such it will be very difficult to monitor, evaluate and justify. What level of bovine TB reduction is being sought? Over what time period? At what cost?

Government ignores its own advice

Professor Ian Boyd, the new chief scientific adviser at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), recently attempted to justify the ad hoc, policy on the hoof, bolster its scientific justification and clarify the role of scientists and scientific evidence in government policy. Scientists, he opined, should not “create conflict between themselves and policymakers, since this could set back the cause of science in government”. They should only communicate through “embedded advisers” (that is, himself) and be “the single voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

How unnerving for the scientific community? The funding implications for future research proposals are both obvious and alarming.

The Independent Scientific Group, set up by Defra, carried out the RBCT - to date the only reliable UK evidence there is. But Defra ignored the conclusions of the £50m bTB control study they had requested. Despite the findings being peer reviewed by eminent scientists, its conclusions that “given its high costs and low benefits, badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle TB in Britain” have been wilfully ignored, seemingly to satisfy political whims.

Given that the government ignored their own report, was it because the ISG failed to join up the dots (data) correctly? Did the group exceed its brief, straying too far into the policy arena by carrying out a cost-benefit analysis? The government’s chief scientific adviser of the time, Professor Sir David King, dismissed the 280-page report after a cursory day’s selective reading with his chosen five experts.

Politicians and policy officials do not “listen carefully to what science says on difficult subjects” as Boyd states. They only listen to what they want to hear, and Hilary Benn and Owen Paterson have very different hearing aids. The role of science is to provide information to decision makers, but decision makers need to listen too. If we are to be told the Independent Scientific Group “got it wrong”, the scientific community needs to be given a more convincing explanation as to where and why.

Four options, more confusion

Control of bTB is very complex, and the UK government is struggling. The disease cost more than £1 billion between 2004-2012, and up to 28,000 infected cattle are slaughtered each year. Current bTB control policy - rigorous cattle testing, slaughter of those that test positive, and compensation for the farmers - has done little to arrest either the incidence or spread of the disease.

Four different bTB options are currently being pursued across the British Isles: proactive badger culling in England, badger vaccination in Wales, test and vaccinate in Northern Ireland, and reactive badger culling in the Republic of Ireland. Boyd amazingly suggests that all four are “more or less correct”. This is a cop-out. We have a duty to test and demonstrate which one is more likely to be economically efficient and successful. This is taxpayers’ money we are playing with, and the consequences affect the livelihoods of farmers, and the lives of cows and badgers.

Defra should come clean and inform the public why the Independent Scientific Group findings are “incorrect” and why it binned the evidence to satisfy its political masters. What chance transparency, scientific honesty and evidence-based environmental policy? I fear that yet again we have set off on a costly and unsuccessful wild goose chase thanks to Defra’s structures, procedures and inherent biases. When will environmental scientists ever be listened to?