Standing up for Science

by ZSL on

ZSL's Rosie Woodroffe has faced hostility for her work championing a scientifically-based approach to the control of bovine TB in relation to badgers. She has been commended among this year’s Maddox Prize nominees for her work and explains more about why she's standing up for science. 

ZSL's Rosie Woodroffe has faced hostility for her work championing a scientifically-based approach to the control of bovine TB in relation to badgers

We live in challenging times. Rising seas engulf islands and threaten coastal cities. Plummeting wildlife numbers endanger the life support systems we depend upon. An epidemic of mental illness is blighting childhood. We urgently need to solve such problems. To do that, we need to understand their causes and test potential solutions.

And yet – last year’s word of the year was “post truth”. This year’s is “fake news”. Elements of society, including key decision makers, are turning away from scientific evidence, just when they need it most. 

Campaigning charity Sense About Science, in partnership with the top scientific journal, Nature, and the Kohn Foundation, responded by establishing the John Maddox Prize, awarded each year to individuals worldwide who have faced hostility in standing up for science.

I am proud to have been commended among this year’s nominees, the first time the Maddox Prize has recognised work relating to the natural environment.

I was nominated for promoting scientific evidence concerning the control of bovine tuberculosis (TB), a cattle disease representing not just Britain’s greatest animal health challenge, but also its greatest wildlife controversy. Some cattle herds catch TB from badgers, and so successive governments have pursued badger culling policies.

I have stood up for science on this issue in two ways, and faced hostility for both. First, I spent 10 years as an independent advisor to government, helping to design, oversee, analyse and interpret the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, a study to explore whether killing badgers could reduce cattle TB. I had a PhD in behavioural ecology. I had spent years watching and studying badgers. I had given some of them names. How could I then involve myself in killing them? Some friends were incredulous. Former colleagues denounced me. Protestors publicised my home address. But TB was a problem that needed a solution. Badger culling was the status quo and politicians of all stripes supported it. Ending it was simply not an option. To me, the key was to find out whether it worked. If it worked, it might be worthwhile; if it didn’t work, it should be stopped.

Hostility also came from within government. Each of the key elements of a good experiment – that it be controlled, randomised, and blinded – were battles we had to win with officials unused to working with scientists. As the Trial approached completion, patience ran out and the Minister of the day planned to announce a culling policy irrespective of Trial findings.

Badger

The Trial ended but the need to stand up for science did not. It revealed, surprisingly, that culling badgers on TB-affected farms could increase cattle TB as well as reduce it. Suddenly free to move through the territories of their dead neighbours, surviving badgers ranged widely, taking TB with them. After culling there were fewer badgers, but each one posed more of a risk to cattle, being more likely to have TB, and ranging across more farms. Killing huge numbers of badgers over vast areas could offset this effect enough to somewhat reduce cattle TB in the cull zones, but only at the cost of increased TB on adjoining land. As the government strove to eradicate cattle TB, its badger culls were spreading the disease to new areas.

Government, farming, and veterinary groups cherrypicked our findings, accepting the benefits of badger culling but downplaying, challenging, or ignoring the costs. New culls were initiated, and when independent experts found these killed too few badgers to avoid increasing cattle TB, government dismissed the experts and set easier targets. Each year, new cull zones are added, and tens of thousands of badgers are shot, but national cattle TB rates continue to rise.

The TB issue has major importance in the British countryside, but it may seem minor on the global stage. Britain is a small island, bovine TB no longer threatens the health of its people, and the badger is not an endangered species. Nevertheless, the story of TB control is internationally important because it shows both the extreme highs and the extreme lows of evidence-based policymaking. The British government showed great courage in supporting a multi-million pound trial to see which form of management would be most effective. But it also cherrypicked the results, eliminated independent scrutiny, and fudged the figures to make subsequent culls look more successful. If a government could go to such lengths for an issue directly affecting a tiny minority of its electorate, how might it treat evidence on bigger issues, like cutting fossil fuel use, or combatting antibiotic resistance? To me, speaking out was a moral obligation.

Science is important because the world is a complicated place. Human bodies, human societies, ecosystems, economies – these are all complex entities which can respond to change in surprising ways. To manage them we need to understand them. And, even when we think we understand them, we still need to test out the way we manage them because, like badgers, they might respond to management in surprising ways. Understand. Test. Science.

By championing those who stand up for science, the Maddox Prize implicitly calls out institutions and governments who suppress or misuse it. The insults, threats, blame, and cold-shouldering I have experienced pale to insignificance when other awardees have been fired, sued, and even sentenced to death. I have been lucky to have been supported by my employers, and encouraged by knowing that many government scientists would have spoken out, as I did, had they been permitted to do so.

I stood up for science. So far I’ve lost. But I won’t stop trying.

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