Hugh Pennington: 'Politicians must consult scientists, or we face disaster'

From a speech by the Professor of Bacteriology to the University of Surrey's festival of research

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There is a profound relationship between scientists, politicians and the media. E coli is seen as important as it killed old people in Scotland, so political action was taken. E coli appeared in the UK in the early 1980s, but came to public prominence in 1996. In the United States, it caused the McDonald's share price to fall, when they had two outbreaks contracted by children when eating their burgers. I'm not endorsing McDonald's, but when the share price falls, something gets done - the food scientists get called in at once.

There is a profound relationship between scientists, politicians and the media. E coli is seen as important as it killed old people in Scotland, so political action was taken. E coli appeared in the UK in the early 1980s, but came to public prominence in 1996. In the United States, it caused the McDonald's share price to fall, when they had two outbreaks contracted by children when eating their burgers. I'm not endorsing McDonald's, but when the share price falls, something gets done - the food scientists get called in at once.

But in Britain, politicians didn't fully engage scientists when they were making their contingency plans for foot and mouth disease in 2001 - they didn't ask them for any contribution to it at all. The scientists might have given them some sound advice if they had been asked.

Likewise with BSE in the 1990s, the unit in Edinburgh that was looking at CJD wasn't asked about BSE what should be done about it, and what the risks there were to humans and how it should be controlled.

There are a lot of scientists in the UK who could give advice, but whose advice is not sought; plus they are reluctant to proffer advice, because it wouldn't be heeded.

At the moment, there is a risk that influenza could come back on the scale of the 1918 outbreak, when it killed 20 million people. We've had some hints from the Far East with the bird flu. Politicians need to listen to scientists. If the nasty bird flu finds a way of transmitting from human to human, it will be a disaster on a level the world will have never seen.

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