Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mad cow disease, a source of wisdom?

Apart from triggering a health scare, the BSE crisis also proved a revelation, by highlighting the tensions in the increasingly complex relations between science and society.

Mad cow disease, a source of wisdom?

December 2000. In announcing a ban on giving livestock any kind of animal-derived feed and resolving to screen or slaughter millions of cattle aged over 30 months, the European ministers showed that drastic action was needed. An exceptional crisis calls for an exceptional response. More than purely a precautionary measure, some also saw in this an action specifically designed to reassure and to calm - without being overly concerned with the scientific or economic bases for such a decision.

So was the measure 'mad' (on account of its enormous cost and exceedingly difficult implementation) or rather a 'wise' move to defuse a crisis which threatened to spin out of control? The question remains open and it is only the experience of the coming months which will provide the answer. But at least the ban has made it possible to take a close look at how things stand. Perhaps it is allowing time to ask the real underlying question posed by the 'shambles' of the past: how to renew a dialogue of trust between scientists, policy-makers, those with economic interests and the general public?

However, we are not starting from scratch. After 1996, when the BSE issue first burst on to the European scene, a remarkable research effort quickly got under way. It is a long-term mission which is far from complete. Although science is beginning to unravel the 'tangle', it must also come down from the pedestal on which our age has too often sought to place it. The fact is that science does not have all the answers. Furthermore, this crisis which so torments Europe has highlighted three specific needs: to reform the ambiguous relationship between scientific expertise and policy-making; to learn together the precautionary principle and how to manage risk; and to communicate with the public, bringing democracy back into the decisions made for society, decisions increasingly influenced by science and technology. It is issues such as these that underlie the discussion instigated by Commissioner Philippe Busquin on the relationships between science and governance in the context of a nascent European Research Area.

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