Science is pointless unless farming does something with it, according to Scotland’s chief vet Sheila Voas, speaking at the British Society of Animal Science annual conference in Edinburgh.
And that ‘something’, as far as her job was concerned, was using it to advise policy-making.
Ms Voas said: “It is called the science/policy interface but in reality it is all about scientists and civil servants working harmoniously.
Some of these civil servants are scientists but others are not.
“Policy is the will of Government. Sometimes it stems from someone’s bright idea and sometimes it stems from well workedout thoughts.
“We are lucky Scotland is home to a big hub of animal science. PROF Colin Whittimore of Edinburgh University suggested yesterday’s science could make an unsafe foundation for future discovery."
Giving a hard-hitting keynote address to mark 75 years of the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS), he advised young scientists not to take the safe route of building on previous work, often by reading research papers, but to be creative.
He recognised this was often not the route which attracted funding or encouraged the publication of favourably reviewed papers, but it was the best way to improve animal production.
Prof Whittimore said: “When BSAS was founded in 1944, people needed food and right through the 1940s and 1950s science was state funded. None of that applies now.
“Science is a consumable commodity and scientists are reluctant to take risks in case they miss out on future funding.”
He wanted to see ‘enlightened innovations’ pass from science into industry and the best place to start was the animal house rather than the library,he suggested.
Animal science should start in the animal house, not the library Scottish Government funds the research institutes to the tune of £45 million per year and that gives us access to both reactive and long-term science.”
She did, however, admit some areas of policy had little scientific basis. For instance, it would be difficult to ban the use of wild animals in circuses on purely scientific grounds, so the law was passed instead on ethical grounds.
“Similarly there has been a lot of publicity about the export of dairy calves to Spain. Instinctively the public thinks this is bad practice, but where is the evidence of welfare problems?
“The Scottish Government have a project underway at the moment to see if there are actually any welfare implications.”
Ms Voas also said there was constant need for the chief veterinary officer to engage with stakeholders and scientists. Devolution had brought policy-making closer to the people and animal health and welfare was a devolved issue.
Policy-making should be evidence based, she insisted, but that was not always straightforward. Use of the same research base could lead to different policies as had happened with badgers, with England deciding to cull to control the spread of bovine TB whereas Wales had decided to vaccinate.
Ms Voas added: “When formulating policy to deal with disease outbreaks, the pace can be fast and time is often short.
“Everything from the scientific side has to be knowledge-based and delivered in non-technical language with no acronyms and no equations.”
The experience of dealing with foot-and-mouth disease in Scotland in 2001 had led to the formation of the epidemiology, population health and infectious disease control centre, known as Epic, made up of seven scientific bodies.
It could be brought into play quickly and had been able to identify the risks involved with the 2007 foot-and-mouth outbreak and the appearance of bluetongue in Kircudbright.
“It is all about keeping it simple and communicating. I value having access to world-class scientists but sometimes we have to remember that public opinion can overrule science,” Ms Voas concluded.