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Scotland's new Chief Scientific Adviser
delivers an open lecture at the
Royal Society of Edinburgh.
How does she shape up?

James Irvine

Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire

Filed 21 Feb 07

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and should
not be considered to reflect the views
of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

Professor Anne Glover was appointed as Scotland's first Chief Scientific Advisor in May of 2006. It would of course be a Scottish Executive appointment, made after advertisement. The appointment is for four years.

She is a Professor of Microbiology, with a particular interest in soil, in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen (1).

My curiosity as to who is Anne Glover had been heightened by the fact that the Scottish Executive had recently announced a radical change in the way it was going to fund scientific research in Scotland. It was going to concentrate the very substantial funding that it provides on projects that conform with its own political agenda, rather than on projects the scientists might want to do.

My curiosity was further heightened by the fact that, once appointed, she announced that she wished to dispense with the services of the Independent Scientific Advisory body that previously helped the politicians. She wanted to select her own advisors. The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) had previously played an important part in the organisation and running of that independent advisory body.

To me, having spent many years in clinical medicine and in the application of research to clinical problems, this sounds pretty dangerous stuff, or at least potentially so. After all, there is a complete dearth of credible scientists amongst the MSPs that frequent Holyrood, although some who hold a basic degree may masquerade as such.

To me, it seems that this "big sister" approach, together with her political masters, involves seizing far too much power over scientific endeavour. The consequence could be that the freedom of Scotland's scientists may be severely restricted. What chance anyone who wants to pursue research in a topic that is not conducive to the political agenda of a bunch of essentially scientifically ignorant MSPs with their ideological hunches?

Professor Glover, in her capacity as Scotland's new Chief Scientific Adviser, was given complete freedom as to the topic of her RSE lecture: a lecture that was open to the public.

She chose

"Does science matter?"

Yes of course it does, and I think most Scots are well aware of that: or at least they used to be, given Scotland's truly remarkable history of scientific achievement.

Since coming to power, the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood has shown a lamentable propensity for pursing uneconomic ideologies which have, in too many cases, achieved little benefit, and much collateral harm, at far too great expense. Are they trying to do the same with Scotland's science?


Professor Anne Glover,
Scotland's new Chief Scientific Adviser,
delivering her lecture
(to enlarge photo Click Here)
Photo©Kimpton Graphics

In the event, she delivered a competent and interesting lecture with an attractive charm that would have done fine as part of a Christmas series for children. May be that is why she got the job of Scotland's first Chief Scientific Adviser, as one of her main missions - revealed by an astute questioner during the discussion period - is the laudable one of getting children's interest in science at an early age, even in primary school. But her lecture virtually avoided mention of how she saw the manner whereby Scotland's scientists were to be supported in the future.

So I asked the following question, with an introductory preamble, aimed at highlighting just how unsatisfactory the current Scientific Advisory services seemed to be, both north and south of the border.

I quoted the following brief passage from the recent meeting of the Select Committee of Science and Technology at Westminster (2):

"The Government must have sufficient expertise to ensure that it both asks the right questions and does not become an uncritical, unquestioning consumer of the advice it receives"

These stern words, and many others from this commendably austere group reporting as recently as November 2006, were clearly the outcome of the series of blunders that have been all too manifest over the years as far as the application of science to tackling important problems that affect the UK, or the individual nations within it.

Although the list of examples that could be quoted is long, I made brief reference to but three.

My first example concerned the recent outbreak of H5N1 type Avian Flu virus in Suffolk. The Westminster Minster for Animal Health (Ben Bradshaw) and his boss, the Minister for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband) stated on national TV that their distinguished scientific advisers had told them that

"Vaccination can mask disease and therefore could spread the disease further"

The same was repeated by a government spokesperson in the House of Lords (3)

It seems that the Westminster Government was using the same advisors as they did during FMD UK2001. Who else could be persisting with the same esoteric scaremongering? Whatever may be demonstrable under the artificial conditions of a laboratory, it is an established fact that in the real world vaccination against viral diseases has been one of the most significant achievements ever in improving the health of both humans and beasts, by preventing spread of disease. Moreover, studies based on recent outbreaks of avian flu in poultry have demonstrated that commercially available killed H5N2 vaccine can be effective in interrupting virus transmission in a field setting (4).

For the second example, I chose the disastrous management of the escalating prevalence of bovine tuberculosis in England's cattle and wildlife. At the present rate it must surely be just a matter of time before the situation spreads north of the border. It is already dangerously close.

Zolly Zuckerman of the Royal Society wrote a model of a report for Parliament in 1980, describing the situation and its remedy (5). For the past two and a half decades (and a bit) science has been used to fudge the issue, including the now discredited Krebs trials that go on and on with no conclusions on account of impractical design and execution (6, 7).

The third example was nearer home in Scotland. It is understood that the Scottish Executive are wanting to have another go at extending the Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones in relation to agricultural land. Previously, the science that was quoted as supporting the Executive's policy had been severely challenged, and so it is again. The fear is that the Policy will win, whatever the science. The result would be a greatly increased bureaucratic burden and expense on Scottish farming with little or no benefit, while the government's agency responsible, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), pockets large amounts of funds to further their own aggressively bureaucratic methods. Such is the situation that SEPA has lost the respect of most of the Scottish agricultural industry, and that a major Scottish political party has stated that bringing SEPA to heel will be part of its manifesto.

I then asked the new Scotland's Chief Scientific Advisor how she saw her role in trying to control and rectify the continuing series of indiscretions, with their profoundly damaging knock on effects throughout the UK, by her counterpart south of the border.

While she gracefully answered at length, she, like any other worthy politician, did not manage to answer the question.

So I pursued her a little further after the close of the meeting. How was she going to cope with inappropriate EC Directives? In particular, how come that imports of turkey meat, going directly to Suffolk, were allowed to continue from a Bernard Matthews plant in Hungary just 30 km outside the restricted zone of a known outbreak of H5N1 avian flu?

"Surely it would be only common sense to stop such direct transportation until such time as the outbreak had been fully controlled in both countries",

I proclaimed.

Her answer was a matter for concern:

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18".

With this sort of smart reply, somehow me thinks her charm disappeared. It was too reminiscent of the smart talk by Professor Roy Andersen, who so dominated the advice to the Westminster Government during FMD UK2001, with a gross over emphasis on epidemiological modelling, that has since been largely discredited (8, 9).

David Miliband had earlier answered the same question on national TV, saying that the UK had to follow EC rules and that the EC rules did not ban such transport.

"To impose such a ban would be against the freedom of trade between member states",

he declared.

Oh yes? And what about the possibility of elicit trade, or poor biosecurity, between a turkey plant within the protected/restricted zones and the adjacent Bernard Matthews plant in Hungary? Or indeed between other adjacent plants that might exist in the area?

Clearly, there could be serious dangers in terms of disease spread throughout the EU by opening up membership to the EU to countries close to where major livestock diseases are a common occurrence, and where control measures are far from satisfactory. It would appear that "biosecurity" in such Eastern European countries largely consists of having "the right papers", with few suitably qualified and experienced inspectors on the ground to personally check what comes and goes, to where and from where. Control by bureaucracy alone is clearly not enough. Such warnings have been repeatedly made. But, as stated by David Miliband, the politicians' doctrine of freedom of trade within the EU takes precedence

Now we reap the consequences. And Government has the cheek to fly the kite that UK farmers should share the cost of disease control in livestock, and the cost of any lapses in that control.

Let us return to Scotland's new Chief Scientific Adviser's cheap quip about common sense.

To those who work in the practice of medicine, be it human or veterinary, common sense is an essential ingredient. It is so often seen to be missing among those who do not work in the practical field of applied science, but who prefer to pontificate from their laboratories or computers.

Somehow, I do not get the impression that much is going to change for the better as Scotland's new Chief Scientific Adviser joins the UK's team of Chief Scientific Advisors. They now comprise:

Professor Sir David King, (England & Wales)
Professor Roy Anderson (Ministry for Defence)
and herself (Scotland)

If I were still dependent on seeking research grants to keep an internationally successful research programme together, I would of course never dare write such a critical article as this. Somehow, no matter what the scientific merit of my endeavours, all my Scottish Executive funding might possibly just disappear.

Now, as a livestock farmer in `Perthshire, I fear that the risk of disease outbreaks on the farm is escalating, linked with a lack of confidence that the science that Scotland used to be so proud of is not being properly applied, nor indeed supported. It would seem that the authorities place false confidence on an ever increasing bureaucracy without getting the basics principles right.

Somehow, the way Government gets and uses scientific advice needs to be overhauled.

Also, if we really want our young people to take up science as a career it will be necessary to demonstrate that science is being effectively applied to problems that affect us, and not brushed aside as political expediency fancies or at the whim of advisers whose knowledge may be founded on a somewhat narrow base.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is to be congratulated for providing an open platform for the new Chief Scientific Adviser to address an interested and informed public. It is just a pity that she did not take better advantage of the opportunity.



1. McCaig, A.E., Glover, L.A. and Prosser, J.I. (2001). Numerical analysis of grassland bacterial community structure under different land management regimens by using 16S ribosomal DNA sequence data and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis banding patterns.
Applied Environmental Microbiology. Vol 67: pp 4554 - 4559.

2. Select Committee on Science and Technology, 7th report (2006).
http://www.parliament.the stationery office.com

3. Hansard 1st Feb 2007. Column 334. Defra: Virologists.

4. Ellis, T.M., Leung, C.Y.H.C., Chow, M.K.W., Bissett, L.A., Wong, W., Guan, Yi and Peiris, J.S.M. (2004). Vaccination of chickens against H5N1 avian influenza in the face of an outbreak interrupts virus transmission.
Avian Pathology. Vol 33: pp. 405 - 412.

5. Irvine, James (2003). TB in cattle and badgers: Zuckerman Report(1980) re-visited.
See TB Homepage, filed 10 Mar 03, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

6. Irvine, James (2006). Cattle farmers in England at the end of their tether with DEFRA over TB control.
See ANIMAL GENERAL HEALTH Homepage, filed 19 Feb 06, www.land-care.prg.uk Click Here to View

7. Irvine, James (2006). Tuberculosis in cattle and badgers: disease control, ethics and welfare. Review of SCAWS workshop, Moredun Research Institute, Edinburgh 19th October 2006.`
See TB Homepage, filed 20 Nov 06, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

8. Kitching, R.P., Thrusfield, M.V. and Taylor, N.M. (2006). Use and abuse of mathematical models: an illustration from the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic in the United Kingdom.
In: Biological disasters of animal origin: the role and preparedness of veterinary and public health services. Edited by M. Hugh-Jones.
Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz. 25 (1), 293-311

9. Linklater, Magnus (2006). Carnage from a computer.
The Times: October 11, 2006 Click Here to View

Further relevant reading

Irvine, James (2006). DEFRA statements on the role of vaccination in the control of virulent livestock viruses could make better informed people weep.
See SCIENCE Homepage, filed 12 Feb 07, www.land-care.org.uk
Click Here to View