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Science and emergencies

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THE House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has already produced some excellent reports on the way the Government uses scientific advice when deciding on policy (VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 725; August 22, 2009, vol 165, p 217). Its latest report on this subject, which was published this week, goes a stage further and looks specifically at the way scientific advice and evidence are used in emegencies.1

As the committee points out, the UK seems to be hit fairly regularly by national crises, such as those caused by ‘extreme weather events’ or animal disease outbreaks. Scientific advice has an important role to play in helping to predict and deal with such emergencies and it is important that it is used effectively. Its report, which is based on an inquiry conducted in the second half of last year, considers the Government's readiness for four very different types of emergency – the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009/10, the disruption caused by volcanic ash from the Icelandic volcano eruption in 2010, ‘space weather’ events and cyber attack – to see what general lessons can be drawn.

A key point made in the report is that scientific evidence and advice play a vital role in the prediction and assessment of risks, as well as in the resolution of an emergency once it occurs, but that this is insufficiently recognised. ‘We have been left with the impression that while science is used effectively to aid the response to emergencies, the Government's attitude to scientific advice is that it is something to reach for once an emergency happens, not a key factor for consideration from the start of the planning process,’ the committee says, and it urges the Government to do better at embedding scientific advice and an evidence-based approach to risk assessment in policy processes before emergencies occur.

It believes that science should be at the heart of national risk assessment processes and recommends that the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser should have a clearer role and be more involved in this process. It calls for more clarity on the composition and workings of the scientific advisory groups that might be set up in emergencies, so that those with credible alternative views can contribute. Referring to the 2009/10 H1N1 influenza pandemic, it highlights the need for the Government to communicate risk effectively to the public, to prevent mistrust and anxiety.

The report does not discuss animal disease outbreaks specifically, but the kind of concerns expressed by the committee will be familiar to those who experienced previous crises, such as those caused by the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 and the emergence of BSE. Indeed, it can be argued that, because of the lessons learned from foot-and-mouth disease and BSE, much more attention has been paid to scientific risk assessment and how scientific advice is used in emergencies in the animal health field than appears to have been the case in some of the areas considered in committee's report. This is not to say that there is room for complacency or that the messages do not bear repeating.

For science to be used to inform both the likelihood and response to emergencies, it needs to be done in the first place, and this must be of concern at a time when funding for science is reducing in real terms. In the field of animal health, the prospect of reduced funding for surveillance, and the threatened closure of some VLA regional laboratories (VR, February 5, 2011, vol 168, p 117), is particularly worrying, because it is on the basis of data obtained through surveillance that risk assessments are made.

Although the report is specifically concerned with the UK, the idea that better use should be made of science when formulating policy clearly applies on a global scale. For instance, a news report in Nature last month drew attention to a warning from scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) based in Nairobi, Kenya, that outbreaks of infectious diseases of livestock are on the rise. These diseases can have severe socioeconomic, health and environmental consequences. The ILRI scientists warn that, although rich nations are controlling livestock diseases effectively, developing countries are lagging ‘dangerously behind’ and new approaches are needed to deal with them.2 A similar point was made in the UK's Foresight report on infectious diseases a few years ago (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605). This is one example of where listening to scientific advice might help pre-empt and help deal with future emergencies and it is to be hoped that the scientists' warning will be heeded.

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