We can't just trust the experts
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 29, 2008

The always fatal but slow to incubate bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) is more prevalent in older animals, so when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed re-entry of Canadian cattle and beef over the age of 30 months to its market, the ultra-protectionist U.S. cattlemen's association, R-Calf, took it to court.

Allowing re-entry of older Canadian cattle and beef has created an "unjustified and unnecessary increased risk of infection of U.S. cattle with BSE," R-Calf argued even as the USDA offered scientific evidence to the contrary. Particularly helpful to the USDA is how such evidence made cheap Canadian cattle and beef available for its large meat packing industry.

What hasn't helped is the recent discovery on an Alberta farm of a 12th case of BSE, but at least Canada is fessing up. This development isn't welcome, a Canadian Cattlemen's Association spokesperson said, but "... it does prove the system is working and the producers are on board with the program."

The R-Calf position appears eerily similar to that of European Union countries looking askance at the BSE catastrophe that devastated the United Kingdom's cattle industry during the 1980s and 90s. "The policy of trying to keep your competitor's diseases out of your herd and population did not require scientific proof that the disease would be fatal," says an important book by Patrick van Zwanenberg and Erik Millstone of the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., "it was sufficient for it to be unwelcome."

BSE: risk, science and governance provides the first comprehensive and scholarly analysis of the BSE crisis in the United Kingdom, but its conclusions about the relationship between science, politics and policy-making apply across an ever widening field. From climate change and fish farms to genetically modified food and the still incomplete science on BSE, van Zwanenberg and Millstone's prescriptions for new structures and processes that lead to greater scientific and democratic legitimacy are timely. After all, and given conflicting scientific evidence, how much risk is acceptable? Who decides, why, and how?

Widely regarded as the worst U.K. policy disaster since Suez, the BSE crisis emerges from the authoritative van Zwanenberg-Millstone files as a who-dunnit of tragic proportions replete with characters from the Keystone Kops and Yes Minister. Here, we learn of politicians quoting science to justify dubious policy decisions that placed the commercial interest of farmers ahead of public safety even as scientists compromised their credibility by trying to anticipate the needs of politicians.

Four million dead cows later and, many fear, thousands of infected humans, the U.K.'s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in tatters and institutional re-jigging that separates the various interests is finally under way.

Those files also provide a history lesson about the role of experts in policy-making. From Max Weber and Emile Durkheim to America's Delaney Amendment, we learn about Decisionist and Technocratic models of policy-making and how, in the 1970s, American scientists began to admit that science simply couldn't answer all questions. Moreover, some argued, "scientific measurement of risk was profoundly influenced by conflicting values" and was not therefore "neutral or objective."

As the ongoing BSE saga demonstrates (the U.S. District Court decision is imminent), that problem continues today but the solution to incomplete or values-influenced science, and the uses and abuses to which various interests subject it, is not to pretend scientists are indifferent to these considerations but instead to make them transparent. Accordingly, write van Zwanenberg and Millstone, governments must invite, investigate and publish the full range of scientific opinion. If the uncertain basis of such science is revealed then many of the non-scientific considerations that produce disagreements among scientists would also be revealed.

It would then be far more difficult for science to be represented as being decisive, and would allow scientists to provide conditional advice. "If the different but proper roles of scientific advisers and policy-makers were clearly and appropriately identified and differentiated, then both groups could be properly, but separately, accountable for their judgments and decisions."

The model preferred by van Zwanenberg and Millstone sees science and policy-making working in tandem. Called the co-evolutionary model, no country has yet adopted it.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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