Monday, 15 October 2012

When policy ignores evidence: badgers and austerity


In the wood next to our house live at least one fox and maybe some badgers. We have seen badgers around, but it was only this summer that we first saw a badger walking (or more accurately sniffing) its way through our garden. It caused great excitement. On a walk from our house is someone who keeps on their smallholding a small number of alpacas. Except the last time we passed two were missing. They had been put down, because they had tested positive for TB. The risk that the others, and nearby cattle, might get the disease was too great. Tragically, autopsies found no trace of TB: the initial tests are not 100% accurate.

Badgers get, and spread, TB. As a result, the UK government is about to begin a large scale cull of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset. No one likes the idea of killing badgers. But cattle (or occasionally alpacas) dying from TB is no fun either. So the badger cull is just one of those necessary bad things that have to be done to prevent something even worse happening. Environmentalists are up in arms, but that is just because badgers look cute and cattle do not.

Except that is not what the evidence suggests. Following various small scale randomised badger culling trials, the UK government set up an independent group of scientists (the ISG) to evaluate the evidence. In 2007 the government published the report (pdf). It concluded as follows:

“The ISG’s work – most of which has already been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals – has reached two key conclusions. First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.”
On Sunday 30 eminent UK and US scientists published a letter in the Observer. They write: “As scientists with expertise in managing wildlife and wildlife diseases, we believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it.” One of the signatories described the government’s policy as crazy, and suggested vaccination and biosecurity was a better solution. The Guardian reports the chair of the ISG as saying “I just don't know anyone who is really informed who thinks this is a good idea." The current government chief scientist said: "I continue to engage with Defra [the relevant government ministry] on the evidence base concerning the development of bovine TB policy. I am content that the evidence base, including uncertainties and evidence gaps, has been communicated effectively to ministers." In other words, ministers know what scientists are saying and have decided to ignore them.

So what is going on? One of the strongest pressure groups in the UK is the National Farmers Union (NFU), and many of their members naturally care a great deal about the health of cattle. To say that the NFU has a strong influence on policy at Defra is a bit like saying that the position of the sun has a strong influence on whether it is night or day. The NFU are convinced that culling badgers will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle, and government policy is following that belief, rather than the scientific advice it commissioned. (For more details, see George Monbiot here.) The BBC reports Defra Minister David Heath as saying "No-one wants to kill badgers but the science is clear that we will not get on top of this disease without tackling it in both wildlife and cattle." Dare I say weasel words.

I would not be the first to draw a link between research and evidence in epidemiology and macroeconomics. (Here is Peter Dorman on bees.) Neither is a science where experiments can be easily devised to definitively prove ideas right or wrong.  In both fields evidence can be messy. With austerity we did not have randomised trials: we had one almost globalised trial, starting in 2010, and one eighty years earlier. The evidence this time round is becoming clear: the harmful effects are much greater than many had assumed.

As I know about macroeconomics rather than epidemiology, I’m tempted to think the policy on badgers is the greater political sin. I’m all too aware of the conflicting messages the academic community have been giving policymakers. Although TB in cattle is an emotionally charged issue, I doubt that it attracts the ideological baggage that seems to infect macro. However, perhaps the two cases are not so different. The problem with austerity is that too many people of influence just know that high government debt is always and everywhere a bad thing. Too many think it is just obvious that when a country has difficulties in selling debt that must imply cutting it back as quickly as possible, in the same way that it is obvious that killing badgers must reduce the spread of TB. And perhaps too many people see badger culls as part of a battle between farmers and environmentalists, just as austerity is a weapon in a battle over the size of the state. 

Maybe we are just naive in thinking that as the evidence against austerity accumulates, and as those that were once for it change their mind, the policy will change. As Wolfgang Munchau writes (FT): “As hordes of frustrated European economists know only too well, macroeconomic analysis in general does not play a role in eurozone policy making.” So the policy goes on, in both the UK and the Eurozone, and I do not like to think about what might happen in the US if Romney wins. While I would never advocate a totally uncritical acceptance of the views of scientists, we are an awfully long way from that position, as unfortunately many badgers are about to find out. 

7 comments:

  1. Nice post.
    Where the analogy breaks down though, is that badgers don't get to vote on the issue. The macroeconomic puzzle is therefore even more puzzling - here in the UK the badgers voted for the cull (or more accurately, allowed the farmers to persuade them that it was in their interests).

    ReplyDelete
  2. "To say that the NFU has a strong influence on policy at Defra is a bit like saying that the position of the sun has a strong influence on whether it is night or day."

    Am I dense? The position of the sun has nothing to do with night or day on earth. The earth orbit the sun not the other way around, so it's the rotation of the earth that determines night and day.

    You aren't advocating geocentrism are you?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I counter your pedantry with higher-level pedantry: A stationary earth is a valid reference frame from which to organise our perceptions of the world.

      Delete
  3. Simon can't you see? This culling and this austerity are for their and our own good!
    Yes it may cause us pain and a decrepit standard of living and in the badgers case,death even,and the instigators are torn up inside at having to do it. But there's no choice,you see,no viable alternative.
    This is the price we must pay for being infected,the badgers with TB and us with our profligate lifestyles and living beyond our means
    This is the case for the imbeciles,you don't believe it,I don't believe it but I'm sorry to say there's a hell of a lot of people do. Hook,line,and sinker.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "And perhaps too many people see badger culls as part of a battle between farmers and environmentalists, just as austerity is a weapon in a battle over the size of the state."

    Bingo. Small-government types the world over want to use the recession to drive MICRO-economic policies that they could never get implemented in a democracy if they were honest about their real motivations.

    Note many such types genuinely think of themselves as neutral technocrats, rather than noticing that they are part of a class which makes a net loss from the welfare state and therefore seeks its abolition. The very human capacity for believing that which is personally convenient is on full display here.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The 'neutral technocrats' should take a look towards Latin America's last decades and consider the consequences wrought by IMF imposed structural adjustment and stabilization policies - weak growth, ongoing poverty, greater inequality, [except for a very few] continued indebtedness, et cetera.

    Other than for elites and many transnationals, Austerity failed.

    I though see the above as only one aspect of the larger, increasingly global, crisis which began c. 1970.

    Regards

    ReplyDelete
  6. If you kill the badgers that don't have TB, you're just concentrating TB in the population, not decreasing the risk to cattle. IMO the only way to deal with this problem, is trap and cull the infected badgers and inoculate the rest. Obviously that would be more effective in the long term, but the Tories are obsessed with simplistic 'solutions' to a problem that involve slaughtering defenceless animals unnecessarily.

    ReplyDelete