Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 350)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2007

PROFESSOR JOHN BOURNE CBE, PROFESSOR CHRISTL DONNELLY AND PROFESSOR ROSIE WOODROFFE

  Q340  Chairman: Did you just sit there with a cup of tea?

  Professor Bourne: Pretty well. I listened to his anecdotes about his career movements and visits to farms at home and in Ireland and about official reports in Ireland. The one thing I did glean was the importance that he will attach to your findings.

  Q341  Chairman: I am delighted about that but clearly the rigorous exchange between yourself and current Ministers is yet to take place.

  Professor Bourne: I did have a letter or an email from the Secretary of State on Monday morning saying, among other things: "Thank you. David King's report will be released later today. You will receive a copy and it would be nice to meet up some time."

  Q342  Mr Gray: Can I pick up one point first of all? You mentioned a moment ago that civil servants in Defra had instructed you that you were not to release particular documents to this committee. Could you tell us, please, which documents they were; secondly, which civil servants gave you that instruction; and, thirdly, what was the result? I think it is completely out of order for civil servants to give instructions. We as a committee of Parliament can ask for any documents. If a civil servant has indeed done that then they have been acting in a very curious way and there must be a very strong reason for wanting to do so. One is very suspicious about what those documents are. Who was it, what documents were they, and why?

  Professor Bourne: I cannot answer the question as to who specifically it was because of course this was all handled through the secretary of the group.

  Q343  Mr Gray: That is quite an important point from the point of view of procedure. Perhaps you could kindly write to the committee and tell us three things. This is a very important point on which I feel very strongly. We need to know in detail: first, which documents you were instructed not to give the committee; second, which civil servants it was who gave that instruction; and, third, what their reasoning was. Would you kindly give us that in writing?

  Professor Bourne: I can give it now. Here are the documents.

  Q344  Mr Gray: Would you kindly give that to us in writing, Professor Bourne. These are frightfully important points. We really need to know in very precise detail so that we can follow it up. It completely breaches all rules of this great Parliament of ours to have done so. Perhaps you could very kindly write to the committee on that point.

  Professor Bourne: Could you ask your Clerk to remind me what you want of the three points that are being made?

  Q345  Chairman: We will put that in writing. Let us move on to your reaction to Sir David King's report. I will ask David Drew to open up with more detailed questions, but I just want to ask you one specific one. You made a lot of play in your response to the fact that all of your work was peer-reviewed, some of it in the very best journals. Professor Denis Mollison has been in touch by email with the committee to reaffirm that situation. Can I ask you: in terms of the peer review that your work had, did anybody raise any of the criticisms of a statistical nature which reflect the comments in Sir David's report when he queries some of the approaches that you took?

  Professor Bourne: No. Can I go through some of how we got to this position? I have not had the opportunity of discussing the report with all of the group. We only saw this on Monday afternoon just before it was released into the public domain. A couple of the group were away. I have discussed it with my colleagues here of course and with Sir David Cox. I think it is fair to say that we anticipated at the outset that our work would be thoroughly debated. We expected this because of the emotive issue, the size of the project we were doing and the political importance of it. We did work to very strict protocols, all of which have subsequently been published and are in the public domain. This included the analytical technology and methodology that we would use. I find it interesting that it is only in the last few weeks that I have heard that the NFBG for instance at that time hired statisticians to try to rubbish our statistical approaches. They were then the National Federation of Badger Groups, now the Badger Trust. They were unable to find any fault with the experimental approach that we had adopted. So these were the sorts of pressures we were under. We anticipated that. We asked Defra to appoint independent auditors and we are extremely grateful to them for this. They have been very helpful to us. You mentioned Denis Mollison, who in fact was a statistical auditor appointed by Defra. The auditors reported not to us but to Defra. Again, all those reports are in the public domain. We also endeavoured to get all our work published as we went along and as the results came through and as we had permission to release these, in high quality, peer reviewed journals. That is the only way you are going to get science out in the public domain without it being questioned or rubbished. Peer review is absolutely critical. You are aware that we had major publications in major international scientific journals. These journals do present the opportunity for feedback—letters and commentary—which is subsequently peer reviewed. No peer-reviewed criticism has appeared in any of the journals. We have seen of course, as you will have, letters and commentary in journals which have been non-peer-reviewed. There is a commentary, you will recall, criticising the reactive cull that appeared in The Veterinary Record recently. We did see that commentary in March, so you must draw your own conclusions. It commented on our paper in Nature but there was no subsequent publication in Nature of that commentary. Those are the steps that we have taken. The other point I would make is that throughout this period all our papers have been considered and approved by Defra prior to publication.

  Q346  Mr Williams: The criticism, though, that was made of the report was not that the science was questionable or that it was not secure and un-peer-reviewed but that the conclusions that were drawn from it and then the recommendations that a cull would not be financially effective were the basis of the criticism. Would you reflect on that because while the science was peer-reviewed, the taking forward of the results and making the recommendations was the key issue and the one that did not have exactly the same substance.

  Professor Bourne: The point you make is very critical and pertinent. We wrote a scientific document and the interpretation was our interpretation of the scientific data. That is the whole point of it. It was the scientific data that was interpreted by us and this is the scientific data and the presentation of that is now being questioned in the King report. Clearly, we will respond to that. That is the critical point that you have made. We were interpreting scientific data. We put it in the report in a way so that if others wished to criticise that data, as indeed in the publications they are able to do, there were channels for those criticisms which required scientific peer review for it to be meaningful. Without scientific peer review, it becomes gossip.

  Q347  Mr Drew: There are particular issues which I wish to address with you rather than ask you what your reaction to the King report is, which I imagine is largely unrepeatable anyway.

  Professor Bourne: That is not true, if I may say so. We do have a reaction but it is very repeatable.

  Q348  Mr Drew: I do not know if you have the King report in front of you. I would like to look very quickly at paragraph 24. I will try to paraphrase it and you will tell me if you think that my paraphrase is a reasonable appraisal. This pours scorn on your methodology with regard to the proactive cull and what you were able to deem from that. Basically, it is alleging that in a sense the four badger removal periods or the four occasions you removed badgers was the very minimum and if more removals had been possible, that intimates there could have been a different set of results. You have always been very robust with us by saying that although foot and mouth did interfere with what you were doing, you would stand by the methodology, the statistical analysis, that you took from that set of results you had from that methodology. What is your reaction to paragraph 24?

  Professor Bourne: There was a variation in the number of culls that took place across trial areas which varies from seven to four, but nonetheless there was a consistency in the results and the data from these culled areas. Perhaps Christl would like to comment on that.

  Q349  Mr Drew: I will try again. Do you think that is a fair criticism of your results or do you think that is a very unfair criticism?

   Professor Donnelly: There is certainly a fair point that it would have been very interesting to see what could have happened with more culls. On the basis of what data we had available, we have been able to estimate here and we estimated an 11.2% increase with each removal. In terms of mathematical modelling, it would be very difficult to go beyond estimating something like that, an increase with each cull, on the basis of a mathematical model unless we knew more about the transmission mechanisms. While it would be possible to construct mathematical models to extrapolate to further culls they would have to have information on whether perturbation was happening, what its impacts were, how the risks related to the number of badgers per square kilometre and what the immigration was, all these things would be extremely difficult to know. My guess is that you could construct mathematical models that could give you different effects based on parameters that you do not know. They would be highly sensitive to this. We did not extrapolate beyond the four.

  Q350  Mr Drew: Is that from another group of scientists a perfectly fair criticism in terms of the methodology you applied or is it unfair in the sense that this is something that is trying to interpret from opinion rather than a scientific basis?

  Professor Woodroffe: I want to make two points on this issue. The first is that the statement that in practice most of the areas had only four removal operations over five or six years is factually incorrect. The average was 5.1 removals. To say there were four removals is inaccurate. It is unfortunate that small mistakes like that pervade this document. I also want to draw attention to the fact that although the whole report sets great store by extrapolating from these trends a temporal trend, they also extrapolate from trends in space. As I say, it is of borderline statistical significance. It is not quite a significant effect and yet great credence is given to this, whereas there are other aspects of the study—I am thinking especially of the ecological evidence providing the mechanism whereby we are now convinced on the basis of a great wealth of highly consistent ecological data—that provide a mechanism whereby these sorts of detrimental effects that we observed did occur. All of that is dismissed as unconvincing; they do not even cite any of the peer-reviewed scientific papers that present that body of information. That is the reason I have brought for the committee copies of those papers to allow you to see them. It is useful to think about this particular issue in the context of what I think in this report is a highly inconsistent standard against which effects are being judged. This temporal trend is used and interpreted and taken as a good convincing effect, and yet other aspects of our work, which in many ways have greater reason to be convincing, have been dismissed. Personally, I do not think that this is a terribly fair judgment of our work, but it is a lot less unfair than some other parts of the report which have dismissed very strong pieces of science that have been published in internationally acclaimed scientific journals.

  Professor Bourne: I think there is a real difficulty here, David, with this report in that it was clearly hastily written and because of that it is very superficial; it is also very selective. What is so important is that you do not just cherry pick bits of data from the report but that you look at the totality of the data that we presented as a result of gathering this over 10 years to draw your conclusions. One can select bits and pieces of data as they have done here, but it gives a very superficial sound bite, which is totally inappropriate to considering the data in its totality. That could be done, of course. Another group would have to spend an awful lot of time doing it if they wished to do so but this document brings no new science to the table. I identified no areas that had not been considered by us and highlighted in our report or in the various papers and supplementary evidence that we have provided associated with those papers.

  Chairman: I am going to stop our questioning of your good self and your colleagues for the time being. I am conscious that Sir David King has a longstanding engagement, a lecture, and he cannot keep an audience of thousands waiting. I do not want to lose a minute of our opportunity to talk to him about his findings. I hope, John, that you and your colleagues will stay on because we want to ask you further questions. There may be things that you would like to put before the committee in the light of what Sir David has to say. Sir David, I know you are not yet on the witness stand. I do not know if Professor Woolhouse, who is with you, is able to remain as well because it would be good from your side if you heard what was being said. We always like to be fair and balanced in what we are doing. It would be helpful if he could remain.






 
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