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Finding Badgers?
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Validity of Badger Research?

No-one can argue that MAFF (as it was then called) had anything other than a "bad press" for several years. In many cases, MAFF's bad press had been utterly and absolutely deserved (Badger Gassing, BSE, Swine Fever, Tuberculosis, Foot and Mouth, etc). Indeed, the highly secretive culture within MAFF and its closet but intimate relationships with many agri-business companies lead, as many hoped, to the abolition of MAFF itself. Whether the change of name from MAFF to DEFRA achieves anything other than a name change remains to be seen. So far there has been little evidence that DEFRA will be significantly better for wildlife than MAFF was (albeit it with a few hopeful exceptions, like the Saltdean case).

In most areas of science, the opinions of scientists comes before those of politicians, business, farmers, environmentalists or other lobbyists. With badgers, it is extremely difficult to assess the "truth", as so much research is funded by DEFRA. The problem with this arrangement is that for decades DEFRA (and formerly MAFF) have consistently given the impression that badgers are the one and only cause of TB in cattle. Consequently, it is extremely difficult for DEFRA to shake off the cynics view that their research grants are provided only so long as their desired results are "proved".

Importantly though, the perceived negative influence of DEFRA, must be weighed against the rigorous scientific methods and honour of researchers themselves. Remember, that very much of UK-based university research is collaborative, between several research partners. Whatever the opinions of any DEFRA spin-doctors, the scientists and researchers need to be able to defend their published conclusions to their own wider academic community, both in the UK and overseas. Before scientific research papers are published in the academic journals, the report is reviewed by a group of other leading scientists. If that peer-group review is heavily critical, the report may remain forlornly unpublished - as a testament to a wasted research grant. Even worse, a poor report may be published anyway, along with peer-group criticism - the very last thing any academic scientist would ever want. Even if DEFRA did manage to "doctor" some research conclusions, those conclusions would not stand up to the scrutiny of independent scientists either in the UK or overseas.

In our view, the scientists who do DEFRA-funded work, do so because of their need to discover the truth in a scientifically-rigorous fashion, and not as apologists for either DEFRA or the worst elements of agri-business. Of course, scientists continue to do DEFRA-funded research, but that in itself is not wrong (scientists have bills to pay, just like the rest of us). Yet to be discovered scientific conclusions may turn out to be uncomfortable for people who like badgers; but the pro-badger lobby must accept the facts when they are certain and when they are published. The same, of course, goes for other people. If it should turn out that the main source of bovine TB is from other cattle, farmers and their representatives must accept that too; and desist from their attempts to exterminate any category of animal which can't be farmed for profit.

What is wrong is the way in which DEFRA fail to use tax-payers money in such as way that might develop useful solutions (like animal vaccines) in the medium to long term. For three decades MAFF and DEFRA have been saying that it might take ten years to produce a vaccine for TB in cattle or wildlife. In those 30 years, they haven't done any serious funding into developing a vaccine; but they have wasted tens of millions of tax-payers money under-compensating farmers who have seen their cattle killed or incinerated. DEFRA should start a major project to develop a vaccine, and they should start it NOW!

What is wrong too is the way in which isolated observations have been "leaked" to what might be called the ill-educated or ignorant press. One example of this was an observation that a badger was seen eating food from a cattle feed trough. This managed to get itself published as "badgers give TB to cattle", despite there being no evidence for this. Making generalised, broad-brush assumptions about an entire disease from a single isolated observation is not science, it's ignorant prejudice.

Scientists need to be aware that their isolated observations might well be taken out for a "spin", by those media-savvy men and women who relationship with the truth can best be described as "semi-detached". Churchill described one politician as having a penchant for terminological inexactitude - a phrase that could now be applied to the modern-day spin-doctor. Following the events concerning the "need" for the war with Iraq because of their "weapons of mass destruction"; senior scientists also need to be aware that they, their careers and their life's work may be cast aside on a whim - especially if their message conflicts with the politicians need for good headlines in the Daily Mail.

Journalists also need to be aware that a few scientists have their own agenda too. Scientific reporting hasn't always done justice to the science or to the public. Over the period of the next few weeks see how often a "cure for cancer" is announced on the TV news. Often the reality of the news item, is that a young scientist has started work on a single small project investigating whether one particular cancer can be cured by one particular treatment. As often as not, such research discovers that a proposed treatment is not effective enough to make a difference, or that further research is needed. Journalists need to be rigorous in their own approach to science and investigation, and demand to see the real evidence of what has actually been seen or done; and not really on the top two paragraphs of an over-optimistic press release.

So far as science policy is concerned, the British tax-payer needs to have greater level of openness and input about where the direction of scientific research lies. Too often, we can surmise, research has been done behind closed doors (or closed farm gates), and done with the intention of proving that badgers give TB to cattle - proving, in other words, that the problems experienced by farmers are due to the wildlife that lives in the countryside. Perhaps that mind-set was acceptable in the days of low food production after the Second World War. Nowadays, people want to see food production done in a more wildlife-friendly fashion - especially as it's their taxes which pay so much in agricultural support schemes. Some members of the public may well be a little "green" when it comes to the finer points of farming and the environment, but most people want to see farming done, with the farmers taking an important role as being a custodian of the countryside with the wildlife which lives in it. If wildlife does a bit of damage, generally it's fairly minor, and that it is just a routine cost of doing the business of being a farmer. Above a certain level of actual damages, I guess, the public would expect a farmer to be given government or insurance company help. However, to kill wildlife, just in case it might cause a problem should be stopped.

This needs to be seen to feed through to research policy, where research should be targeted as developing vaccines and animal welfare/health treatments. To often some research appears to have been funded so as to provide a "proof" why we should kill more badgers, or foxes, or deer, or whatever else. Such "proofs" may satisfy the PR boys and girls, but they don't impress most people outside of the DEFRA Spin-Doctory.

As people who like badgers, we also need to seek out those scientists and discover how we might be able to improve things for all animals, both in terms of animal husbandry, vaccination and so on. We need to be able to take the benefits of modern science, to prevent the barbaric treatment of animals. We need to use the new high-tech methods (like DNA-based tests) to find out actual infection routes and risks, and use those to mitigate the risks of further animal suffering. Whether we should follow the routes of better vaccines or better animal husbandry is a moot point, but we need to turn our backs on animal exterminations justified for politicians by "scientists".

We need to be aware that what makes science good, is the scientists who do it and the rigour with which they address the issues of science. Some of the very best badger scientists in the world work for DEFRA, and their research would be just as useful and valid, whether they worked for DEFRA or otherwise.

Michael Clark
book by
His affection
for badgers
really shines
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