Ministry squeezes research into BSE

Click to follow
The Government's reliance on science as a political weapon with which to beat the European Union was undercut yesterday by the publication of figures showing that the Ministry of Agriculture is spending pounds 1m a week less on scientific research now compared to 1985 when (BSE) was first reported.

The Government's chief scientific adviser yesterday conceded that spending cuts had damaged the Ministry of Agriculture's (Maff) scientific capacity at the time when public concern had grown over mad cow disease in Britain.

Over the past 10 years, Government spending on research and development across all departments has fallen by pounds 1.6bn in real terms - about a quarter. Maff's spending has been cut by slightly more than the average.

Sir Robert May, the chief scientific adviser, said that over the past decade Maff had focused narrowly on research and development which touched its central policy objectives, with the result that it was now less able to respond to new challenges like BSE.

He added: "I think Maff might now recognise that decreasing veterinary expenditure is something to be reconsidered." He said that research on BSE had not been cut any more than any other aspect of Maff science.

In contrast to the ministry's practice of cutting science, he stressed his view "that it is the responsibility of all departments to take a broader view of their ability to respond to the unexpected" by maintaining their scientific expertise. Sir Robert pointed out that in the face of concern about emerging diseases affecting human health, as well as new animal diseases: "We need to be thinking about how do we respond to things we don't know about."

The Department of Health is putting together a pounds 4.5m co-ordinated programme of research on the epidemiology of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Sir Robert announced. This new NHS money will be matched with pounds 4m extra from Maff for further studies of BSE.

However, the Government is expected to announce today that the research institutes of the former Agricultural and Food Research Council are to be hived off to a semi-privatised position.