Mad Cow Disease - Painting Policy-Making into a Corner

Millstone, Erik and Van Zwanenberg, Patrick (2007) Mad Cow Disease - Painting Policy-Making into a Corner. Journal of Risk Research, 10 (5). pp 661- 691. ISSN 1366-9877

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The BSE saga in the UK provides important lessons on the role of governments in risk communication and management during crises, and on the ways in which inappropriate early responses can skew the perceptions of stakeholders, exacerbate conflicts between different interest groups and constrain the governments options for effective action. A brief discussion of the emergence of BSE in the UK cattle herd, and the accompanying policy dilemmas, prefaces an account of how policy-makers responded to the crisis and communicated about possible risks, the effects on attitudes of stakeholders and the implications for policy. The paper shows that the UK governments risk communication tactics misrepresented the underlying science and failed to take a precautionary approach because scientific uncertainties were concealed and denied. The UK authorities claimed to be protecting public health but in practice they were more concerned to support agricultural markets and minimise state intervention and public expenditure. Regulations that were introduced were too little and too late, and were not properly enforced. Too little was invested in scientific research and the involvement of independent scientists was actively discouraged. The high degree of uncertainty in the prevailing state of knowledge was not acknowledged. Instead of adopting policies that were consistent with the available scientific evidence and understanding, the government merely promulgated the rhetoric of science-based policy, while discounting relevant scientific evidence and discrediting scientific advice that was inconsistent with its chosen narrative. It chose a narrative of total confidence and certainty, attached to an assumption of zero risk, and then struggled to adopt forms of reasoning that would sustain that position in the face of accumulating evidence to the contrary. Implications for risk communication of adopting a more precautionary approach in such circumstances are discussed.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: University of Sussex Business School > SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit
Depositing User: Erik Millstone
Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2012 20:55
Last Modified: 30 Jul 2013 11:55
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