WHAT FUTURE FOR BEEF? : Mad cows and British science

Our chronic under-investment in basic scientific research will hamper the fight against BSE, writes Tom Wilkie
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Mad cow disease now looks as if it may be the equivalent of Aids, but as an epidemic confined to one country. The two diseases were recognised within a few years of each other, in both cases the causative agent was unknown, and in both cases governments that should have known better went into a state of denial.

But there the similarities end. An international scientific effort was mounted to track down and identify the causative agent of Aids. Britain is the only country with mad cow disease, and consequently the international scientific community has not seen it as a pressing problem.

But the Government failed to recognise its weakness in the basic science needed to underpin any sort of reasoned response to the potential of the bovine disease to trigger its human analogue, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). It set up the CJD surveillance unit, which has reported this week to devastating effect, but it is frankly unacceptable that we have had to wait for the human corpses before we could think it likely - for we still do not know - that eating beef may have been responsible.

The CJD surveillance unit conducts applied research, which supplies invaluable information but not understanding. Why are definitive tools not already available to tell us for certain if people have caught CJD from eating beef and whether any given sample of beef is safe to eat?

For decades, Britain has maintained a research unit in Edinburgh looking at the related disease of scrapie in sheep. It is an open secret in the scientific community that for nearly a decade - the period before the outbreak of mad cow disease - this, the Neuropathogenesis Unit, essentially marked time scientifically by failing to appreciate the relevance of modern molecular biology - gene splicing and genetic engineering - to the work it was doing.

In principle, this would not matter - researchers make the wrong choices in science all the time - as long as there were others who were exploring the right avenues. But basic science in Britain is now so stretched that, until recently, there was hardly anyone else.

Dr John Collinge and his colleagues at St Mary's Hospital Medical School have been doing sterling work on modern molecular biology and CJD. But St Mary's is not immune from the stresses and strains of basic science in Britain - as demonstrated when its group researching Alzheimer's disease emigrated to the US en masse and when the charismatic head of the department, Professor Bob Williamson, departed to Australia. Consequently, much of what we do know about the basis for these diseases is due to research led by Professor Stan Prusiner, in California, where there is neither scrapie nor mad cow disease. That is a telling indictment of the UK.

The basic science required to allow us to understand what has happened is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap. It requires motivated and clever people who are actually surprisingly cheap - for scientists are not as greedy as City financiers. But even so they are too expensive for the Government - Britain is the only OECD country spending less as a proportion of national wealth on research and development now than in 1981.

One of the lessons of the war against Aids is that scientists doing apparently unrelated research made crucial contributions. It follows that if a country is to maintain the capacity to deal with potential threats, such as Aids or mad cow disease, it needs to maintain a broad base of scientists cheerfully doing work that appears utterly irrelevant.

It is an old lesson, for at the outbreak of the First World War, Britain discovered that it was so deficient in basic chemistry and its application that the dyes for Army uniforms, the optical glass for gunsights and the ingredients for explosives came from its enemy - imperial Germany.

Now another "war" has come: the one against BSE. And once again under- investment has rendered British science incapable of contributing fully to the fight.