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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?
Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie,
Filed 21 Feb 07
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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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
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",
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,
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",
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
James (2006). DEFRA statements on the role of vaccination in the
control of virulent livestock viruses could make better informed
See SCIENCE Homepage, filed 12 Feb 07, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View