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Live Blog of FSA Chief Scientist

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  • 04/11/11--02:46: Molecular detectives
  • It wasn’t so many years ago that the first human genome was sequenced. But in terms of developments in biotech it feels like a lifetime. Dozens of scientists worked tirelessly for 10 years to unravel the 20,000 genes of the human genome – and now next generation sequencing can do this at a fraction of the time and cost. But what practical applications could these new methods have?

    With help from our colleagues at the Food and Environment Research Agency, scientists at the US Food and Drug Administration have successfully applied genetic sequencing in a novel way to identify the source of a previously unsolved salmonella outbreak. 

    In this particular case, conventional pulse field gel electrophoresis wasn’t able to distinguish between different types of Salmonella Montevideo that had been isolated from the individuals who had become ill and from food sources. But the increased sensitivity of next-generation sequencing identified a strong genetic similarity between isolates found in a spice rub with that of the clinical isolates, which indicated that the outbreak had been caused by spice rubs used to make Italian-style spiced meats.
    The success of applying this kind of forensic approach to a previously unsolved outbreak suggests that these methods could be useful for future investigations. But with these constantly developing technologies needing specialist skills and resources, do these new techniques have a future in everyday lab investigations?

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  • 07/26/11--07:47: Fair enough?
  • While it's not my normal bedtime read, a recent report from the BBC Trust caught my eye. The Trust commissioned Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, to review the accuracy and impartiality of BBC science coverage. There was also an in-depth analysis by researchers at Imperial College London of science coverage across the BBC. As regular readers of my blog will know, I'm a keen advocate of engaging everyone in science; the BBC plays a significant role in creating interest in science, being widely viewed and highly trusted by the general public.

    In his assessment, Professor Jones finds much to praise; he suggests, in the main, science coverage at the BBC is of a high quality. He praises the breadth, depth and professionalism of coverage. However, he does believe there is room for improvement, particularly with regard to the BBC’s impartiality policy.

    Professor Jones points out that at times editorial staff can be 'over-rigid' when following the BBC's guidelines on impartiality, failing to take into account the 'non-contentious' nature of some stories. There is a danger that by trying to 'balance' a scientific argument you can actually over represent marginal scientific opinions giving them greater credence than they deserve. Professor Jones cites past coverage of claims about the safety of the MMR vaccine and more recent coverage of claims about the safety of GM crops. To avoid 'minority opinion' appearing to be genuine scientific debate, he suggests the BBC adopt a more common-sense approach to 'due impartiality' in future.

    I think the BBC gets its coverage right more often than they get it wrong, but I am encouraged that the BBC executive and BBC Trust accept the criticisms raised and are working to address them.

    What do you think? Is there a danger that by trying to be too balanced, scientific arguments could be skewed?

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    Christmas is always a good time to reflect on another year passing, so here are some of my thoughts:

    Most amusingBen Goldacre’s description of the Daily Mail’s Sisyphian project of categorising the whole of the inanimate world into those things that cause cancer and those that protect you from cancer! As Camus might have said, this one will roll and roll...

    Most sensible advice–‘Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison’. Paracelsus, or to give him his full name, Auroleus Phillipus Theostratus Bombastus von Hohe, is still the Godfather of toxicology after all these years!

    Best news– publication of the Science Review of the FSA, in which the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, described our approach to science as ‘impressive’.

    Most predictable– the response to the publication of a report that concluded that there are no important differences in nutrition content between organic and conventionally produced food. Predictably, we were criticised for our approach to science – see above!

    Most disappointing– the lack of progress in reducing campylobacter in chicken. Our survey published this year found that 65% of fresh chicken on sale in this country contains campylobacter, which is a major source of food poisoning.

    Biggest challenge– (apart from Sheffield Wednesday avoiding the drop....sorry Tim!) is making real reductions in campylobacter in chicken – this is a key priority for us in our new strategic plan as we need to prevent so many people getting ill unnecessarily.

    Most encouraging– your continued response to this blog.

    Biggest hope for 2010– (apart from Tottenham Hotspur going from strength to strength) is that we can encourage people to drop the dogma and engage in open debate informed by evidence.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the highs and lows of 2009 and what challenges might be facing us in 2010.

    I hope you all enjoy a period of feasting and merriment, unbounded (at least temporarily) by the usual strictures from my nutritional colleagues!

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  • 01/07/10--07:40: Joining up on science
  • For the new year, I've made a resolution not to comment on the proliferation of fad diets and detoxes surrounding us in the media (I think we can use our common sense on this). Instead I want to look forward to 2030 and the UK cross-government strategy for food research and innovation, which was launched on Tuesday by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
    This strategy sets out how the Government plans to maximise the contribution of research and innovation to meeting its goals on food. A key element of this will be strengthening partnerships between funders, and this chimes really well with our science and evidence strategy, which has partnership as one of its key themes.

    Of course there are already good examples of where funders are coming together to share information and develop collaborative approaches, including the Microbiological Safety of Food Funders Group. But, I hope, the strategy will provide added impetus to developing new collaborative approaches, such as the multi-partner food security research programme and the coordinated programme on campylobacter research, both of which are referred to in the strategy. And we’ll be continuing to look for more opportunities to strengthen our collaborative work, so watch this space...

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    It was a pleasure to have Jonathon Porritt, a distinguished commentator on sustainable development, come to talk to staff and present us with some challenges!
    Jonathon questioned at what point food security issues impinge on the Agency’s values for diet and nutrition and he also challenged the Agency suggesting we should promote less meat consumption. He also called for a more integrated approach to dietary advice that was not just based on nutrition.

    I agree that it’s important to make it easier for consumers to make informed choices, and while our priority lies with protecting consumer interests, we also aim to give people information that will allow them to make decisions about the issues that matter to them.
    We’re now taking this further and leading on a cross-government project to bring together all advice on food – so not only will people be able to find out how many portions of fish they should be eating, but also which species are more sustainable, and get the facts on food miles. We are also working on cross-government research initiatives that will enable a more integrated approach.

    I’d be interested in hearing what issues are important to you when you’re choosing what food to buy.

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  • 03/31/10--07:46: Risky reporting
  • I’m sitting at a conference talking about the huge issue of campylobacter – a food bug that’s making 300,000 people seriously ill every year. There is no uncertainty about the risks to people’s health from this bug, nor of the scale of the problem. Meanwhile in today’s Independent seven whole pages are dedicated to bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that a minority of scientists say might be of risk to some people’s health.

    It is frustrating that the media’s focus so often ignores the real risks we are facing, while creating a disproportionate alarm over potential hazards. 

    The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that low-dose effects of BPA in rodents have not been demonstrated in a robust and reproducible way, and so cannot be used as pivotal studies for risk assessment. Similar conclusions on studies of low dose effects have been published since that opinion.  EFSA is currently reviewing these and the UK has been actively involved. 

     The Agency was set up with the specific aim of protecting public health, and it simply wouldn’t be in our interest to ignore evidence that our scientists believe showed people’s health was being put at risk.

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  • 04/01/10--03:35: Making chicken safer
  • I’ve been both interested and encouraged over the past couple of days, hearing what other countries have been doing to reduce levels of campylobacter in chicken. Along with many of my colleagues, I’ve been at an international conference we’ve been hosting in London.

    Levels of campylobacter in UK chicken are too high. Around 65% of shop-bought chicken has this food bug and it makes about 300,000 of us ill every year. Our aim is to work with industry to develop a range of new interventions targeted at different points along the food chain and, as always, we are taking an evidence-based approach to develop these. Finding out what has worked in other countries is the obvious first step.

    There is no shortage of possible treatments that can reduce campylobacter contamination of chicken, but finding the ones that will work for the UK is what we are working on. While some approaches will present regulatory problems, others may not be very palatable for consumers.

    In the USA and New Zealand, a number of antimicrobial treatments are in use successfully. Not all are currently permitted in the European Union but we should keep an open mind because this could change. One such treatment involves washing the chicken in lactic acid, already a common component of food, which has potential benefits for food safety. Other countries have used methods such as steam treatment and freezing – but would we consider the treated chicken to be ‘fresh’?  I’ve also been hearing about the pros and cons of saline washes and ‘cold pasteurisation’– irradiation in other words.

    Over the next year we will be researching and exploring attitudes to find the methods that are acceptable to everyone – producers, processors, retailers and consumers. And we will be working closely with industry. Their trial and evaluation of different interventions is key – they are the ones who will ultimately be putting them into practice, after all.

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    With the election period over I’m pleased to be blogging again.

    Although our communications have been quiet and the papers have been flooded with election news, I've noticed there’s still been a trickle of food stories covering the usual breadth of topics, including a raft of foods tipped for their supposed cancer prevention properties.

    And although I’m a little reluctant to quote the Guardian quoting the Times, I was interested to read an article at the end of last week about the ever changing list of foods that may either cause or prevent cancer and about people’s frustration that scientists always appear to be changing their mind. This in itself is not surprising, but it's also nothing new – the Guardian was quoting an article from 1927.

    The article also considers the results of a YouGov survey, which showed 52% of people think scientists are always changing their minds about cancer, and that 46% say they don’t trust news coverage about cancer. I am confident that one of the key strengths in the Agency’s advice is that it’s based on the best available science and evidence, so this article raises some interesting challenges for us.

    How do we make sure important messages and research findings don’t get lost amongst the media spin? And how can we work best with the public and the media to improve people’s trust in science?

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  • 05/21/10--09:19: Nanofoods – size matters
  • Having taken a swipe at media spin a few days ago, it’s good to finish the week flagging up a bit of media sense – no prizes for guessing it comes from New Scientist. Its editorial joins the chorus for more openness and honesty in discussions about nanofoods, particularly from the companies developing them.

    New Scientist warns, as we have, that the food industry is jeopardising the future of nanofoods by failing to trust consumers with the scientific facts as we currently know them. If this is relatively new territory, I’d steer you to our latest issue of Bite, which is devoted to nanofoods, then to the excellent Lords Select Committee report Nanotechnologies and Food and the government response. The response tasks the FSA with ensuring there is open dialogue and clear, accessible information for consumers, and we’ll pick up the pace on this with the new coalition government.

    There’s also an interesting point well made in the New Scientist editorial about the emphasis on size when categorising a branch of science, as is happening with nanotechnologies. I was reading about the giant bowl of hummus that has just reclaimed the Guinness World Record for Lebanon and it struck me that we don’t refer to processing individual chickpeas as ‘millitechnology,’ so why ‘nanotechology’ for any and all particles that fall into the nanoscale, and which can range in diameter over three orders of magnitude?

    The nanotechnologies brand is helpful for focusing attention, but it is a rather simplistic term that covers a wide range of very different functions, processes and products, which are all put at risk if the 'brand' is tarnished by a lack of trust.

    Is it time to focus less on the nanotechnology 'brand' and more on individual functions, properties and uses of nanotechnologies?

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  • 05/25/10--04:46: The data behind the review
  • The Agency published a scientific review of organic food last July, which found that there are no important nutrient differences or nutrition-related health benefits from eating organic food, compared with conventionally produced food.

    We knew this report would be of interest and its findings continue to be discussed almost 12 months on. So it’s good to see another paper from this review being peer reviewed and published in a leading scientific journal

    To coincide with this, we are publishing all the detailed raw data from the studies included in the systematic review on nutrient content, so people can see for themselves what information the team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine based their conclusions on.

    I’m sure that this is a subject that will continue to arouse strong opinions, but our job is examine whether these opinions are backed up by sound science. The Agency will consider new peer reviewed information as it becomes available, to ensure consumers get the information they need to make choices based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence. 

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  • 08/17/10--08:40: The culinary soothsayer
  • The Royal Society has published a new series of papers that I’m sure will add to recent debates on issues such as GM and cloning. The papers provide an academic assessment of the future of the global food supply and are a result of the Government Foresight project.

    It has been predicted that food production will need to be increased by as much as 70% in the next 40 years and, unsurprisingly, GM, nanotechnology and the growing of artificial meat in factories are all considered as potential solutions to the global food crisis.

    But it’s not only the subject matter of the papers that interested me, it’s the approach taken that I wanted to acknowledge. The Royal Society has brought together a set of 21 research papers, which instantly adds value to the research. As with all science, a single piece of research won’t give you answers to a complex problem, but looking at all the available evidence enables you to make informed decisions. It’s also great to see that these papers are being made freely available, giving more people the opportunity to see the evidence for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

    These issues will certainly need a great deal of collaborative working and this is a valuable contribution.

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    Please excuse me while I borrow Andrew’s blog for a minute, but I just wanted to join in on the chatter in an earlier blog about the pitfalls of communicating science to the general public.
    We pride ourselves on being a science-based organisation and on putting the consumer first, so the big question we deal with on a daily basis is: how do you maintain scientific accuracy while making the science easy for people to understand?

    Effective communication is about thinking how messages are received rather than how they are sent out.  And that isn’t just about avoiding words that people need a specialist dictionary to translate, it’s also about communicating in a way that will engage and interest people – what’s the point in us talking about ‘levels of a genotoxic carcinogen above the TDI’ if people are just going to pick up their Daily Tabloid and read about how we are all going to die? Why can’t we talk about unsafe levels of a harmful chemical instead? It might not have all the detail, but it tells people most of what they need to know.
    Yes, I know some think that  simplifying the language we use is dumbing down our advice, but our challenge is communicating with everyone in the UK, and doing so against the daily barrage of (often tabloidese) information. To be heard and heeded, too, our advice needs to be succinct and easy to understand but also accurate.

    So, over to you, how do we get the balance right?

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  • 10/25/10--02:17: What's on the horizon?
  • Friday's Daily Mail suggests the Agency is ordering the country to go vegetarian to help reduce green house gases ('Go vegetarian, by order of Government food police'). This is after we published a report on Thursday into the implications of climate change on food policy.

    We have made no such recommendations. In fact, we asked researchers to look at existing research on climate change and advise us on possible implications of the world’s changing weather patterns on food policy in the UK. This is all part of being a forward-looking, science-based organisation. We need to know what is on the horizon. And we will carefully review the report authors' conclusions before making any policy decisions – and of course all our policy decisions are discussed in open by the Board.

    Our main concern is how climate change may affect food safety and this report gives us a better picture of what problems may occur and where we might need to respond in the future.

    The report covers other areas of food policy, and will be a helpful resource for policy makers across Government. It could not, however, be called a mandate to force us all to be vegetarian.  Please take a look at the report, and let us have your comments on what a reasonable reader might draw out as its main conclusions.

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  • 11/05/10--03:09: Invisibility cloak
  • It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but I was reading an article on the BBC website yesterday that says scientists are one step closer to producing an invisibility cloak.
    Although a long way off, the concept of an invisibility cloak is an exciting one and it got me thinking about the potential applications to the food industry and potential benefits to food safety. I’ve been racking my brains for a while and with the exception of invisible environmental health officers, I’m yet to make any breakthroughs.
    So I throw it open to you – do you have any bright ideas for changing the way we eat with invisible packaging, imperceptible foods or undetectable utensils?

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    Following the publication of the European Food Safety Authority survey on food, I was interested to read that only 29% of UK consumers think that food could damage their health.  Of course I’m delighted that consumers are not worrying unnecessarily about food risks, because a lot has been done to improve the safety of food. However, I do wonder whether the food scare stories circulating regularly in the media have made people almost ‘immune’ to all possible food-related risks.

    One of the difficult things we face working at the FSA is trying to get the balance right between not wanting to alarm people but also not wanting them to get complacent about the risks associated with food.  I worry that if there is a food safety risk in the future, it will be like the boy who cried wolf too many times and consumers will ignore the stories and, more importantly, Agency advice. 

    What I’d like consumers to know is that food, generally, is pretty safe and the Agency will continue to do all that it can to ensure this situation continues. However, individuals also have a vital role to play in protecting themselves.  Simple steps can be taken to cut down the risks from food poisoning, such as cooking food thoroughly, washing hands before preparing food and keeping cooked and uncooked foods separately in the fridge.  

    So the bottom line is, don’t worry about food but please still follow basic Agency advice on cooking, cleaning, avoiding cross-contamination and chilling.

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  • 11/24/10--06:30: New evidence on E. coli
  • There was an interesting development in the science around E. coli O157 reported last week. An article in the British Medical Journal showed that E. coli O157 infection can lead to an increased risk of heart and kidney problems in later years. The discovery of these previously unknown complications emphasises the importance of tackling the risks of E. coli O157 in the food chain to help prevent food poisoning.

    This is particularly relevant at the moment, because the inquest into the tragic death of five-year-old Mason Jones from E. coli poisoning in September 2005 has just finished. Mason died after eating school dinners containing meat contaminated with E. coli O157.

    The report comes from a major Canadian research programme that examined the long-term health of individuals following the contamination of a municipal water system in Ontario with E. coli O157 and Campylobacter. In total, 54% of people experienced acute gastroenteritis during the outbreak and, when compared to people who weren’t ill, these people were shown to have an increased risk of developing hypertension, renal impairment, and cardiovascular disease.

    While it’s well known that E. coli O157 infection can result in serious conditions in vulnerable people, such as haemolytic-uraemic syndrome, this study provides evidence that there are also long-term health risks in symptomatic adults – and emphasises the importance of ensuring the safety of food and water supplies.

    E. coli O157 has been responsible for a number of large and serious foodborne outbreaks in the UK, and will continue to be a key priority for us. Following the inquiry into the South Wales E. coli O157 outbreak in 2005, we established our Food Hygiene Delivery Programme to specifically address its recommendations to improve hygiene in food businesses and investigate ways of reducing the transmission and spread of E. coli O157 in cattle. This ‘farm to fork’ approach will be delivered partnership with farmers, the food industry and enforcement community.

    But while work is ongoing to help clean up practices in food businesses, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there are a few simple things that we can do at home to avoid food poisoning, and in particular, cooking and preventing cross-contamination are crucial to reducing the risks of E. coli O157.

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  • 12/01/10--05:29: It’s just a gut feeling
  • I spotted another development in the science around E.coli O157 in the news last week. As part of an EU project, researchers have found that E.coli O157 has an advantage over other bacteria because it is able to metabolise different food sources.

    Genetic analysis has shown that O157 is able to get nitrogen from ethanolamine – a chemical present in the guts of cows. The gut is a competitive environment for bacteria to survive in and, because only O157 is able to utilise ethanolamine, it gives it a distinct advantage over other bugs.

    The researchers hope that these new findings will allow for the selection of feed and probiotics that will eliminate ethanolamine in cows’ intestines, which would provide a means of reducing the spread of E. coli O157. I will be interested to find out how this work develops into practical interventions for tackling this pathogen at farm level and its subsequent impact on foodborne transmission.
    This is also a timely finding, as the Financial Times reported on Monday that the consumption of raw milk is becoming more popular. The potential for E. coli O157 contamination means the consumption of unpasteurised milk or undercooked meat are risky activities. Therefore, if we can protect people by tackling bacteria at the source, and remove the fuel that feeds the fire, that’s fantastic.

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  • 02/01/11--03:01: The end is nigh for BSE
  • The New Scientist had good news last week, reporting on the latest official figures from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which show BSE has almost been eradicated – just 25 years after it was discovered.

    In 2010, just 10 cases of BSE were recorded in the UK, and of the cattle slaughtered for human consumption, none were found to have BSE. This is a huge reduction in cases compared to the peak in 1992, where 37,280 cases were reported in the UK in that one year.

    The article hails the eradication of BSE as a ‘triumph for science’. Chris Higgins, Chair of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, is quoted saying: ‘it’s a great success story for science, for scientific advice to government and for the measures governments put in place to stop it spreading’. And I agree, if our government vets hadn’t quickly identified how BSE was being spread from animal to animal, the controls to ban the use of meat and bonemeal in animal feed wouldn’t have been implemented, and this is what ultimately broke the cycle of infection. Of course, the Food Standards Agency has played an important role in ensuring these controls were being operated fully.

    But what does this mean for controls in the UK now? Is it now an appropriate time to relax some of the strict TSE controls?

    In July 2010, the European Commission published its TSE Road Map 2, which outlines where changes to TSE-related controls could be made. As a first step, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health will be considering whether to allow the relaxation of the current age that healthy cattle, being slaughtered for human consumption, must be tested for BSE – from 48 months to 72 months. The Agency’s Board will then discuss this in May to consider whether this is something that should be applied in the UK. But what is essential to remember as we have these discussions is that even as the perceived risk is reduced, both human and animal health must take priority and any changes must be backed by evidence.

    From where we started in the mid-80s with an unknown quantity, research has taught us a lot more about the science of TSEs – what they are and the potential for them to spread, and this, together with more effective on-farm surveillance, puts us in a strong position to prevent a similar situation arising in the future.

    The New Scientist concludes with the salient point that ‘as unprecedented pressure is put on the environment it is clear new diseases will emerge. We must remain vigilant… we must always expect the unexpected’. And this is something we need to remember, if BSE has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t be complacent.

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    It’s no secret that I’m a big supporter of engaging the general public in science, so it’s been great to see the huge range of events that have been put on to celebrate National Science and Engineering Week– the theme for this year is ‘communication’. And fittingly, the Agency, in partnership with the Anaphylaxis Campaign, held a public conference on ‘Communicating the Science of Food Allergy’. The audience was a healthy mix, drawn from academia, the food industry and people with, or catering for, people with food allergy.

    Part of the conference involved a lively panel debate on ‘the difficulty of communicating advice to the public where the science is uncertain or knowledge is developing’. As a communications man, I was particularly interested in the debate section that focused on how best to communicate uncertainty to the public or, should I say, publics? For what became evident is that different members of the public interpret and react quite differently to the same piece of advice. This is nothing new to us, but it reinforces the point that when it comes to communicating uncertainty, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t necessarily suit all.

    So what’s the best approach when it comes to deciding the best time to communicate new information? The general consensus was that scientists should be honest when they don’t have all the answers about a potential health risk, but they should communicate what information they do have and highlight the reasons for the uncertainty. Easier said than done, but do it we must.

    However, we had a very engaged audience committed to a particular issue but their commitment to the unvarnished truth is slightly at odds with some consumer responses that Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre has come across. And indeed some of our own consumer engagement at the Agency.  This suggests that in many circumstances the average consumer wants to hear confident clear statements from scientists – after they have carefully checked their results and got a real consensus – and not before.  Uncertain and woolly advice is not always appreciated, whatever our conference audience said.

    What are your views? Would you rather be informed as soon as scientists think they know about a problem that could affect your health, or would you rather they obtained more robust evidence, got their work peer reviewed and communicated their findings once they have all the answers? Is there a time to communicate and a time to refrain from communicating (Turn! Turn! Turn!).

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  • 03/21/11--02:30: A war against pseudoscience
  • I wanted to add a few words of support for the Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington’s ‘war against bad science’. At an annual conference of scientific civil servants last month, Beddington urged fellow scientists not to tolerate the misuse of science. His words were strong, and by likening tolerating bad science to tolerating racism, they are bound to ruffle a few feathers. But strong words are what’s needed to fight back against the bad science that tends to get the good publicity.

    Our favourite campaigner against bad science, Ben Goldacre, has also joined the fray and is quoted in Research Fortnight as saying: ‘Society has been far too tolerant of politicians, lobbyists, and journalists willfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view.’

    This is something I too feel very strongly about, and so do the rest of my colleagues in the Agency. We work hard to evaluate all the available scientific evidence so that we can deliver a clear and reliable message to consumers – but this isn’t always easy against a backdrop of politically-motivated pseudoscience. We’ve all heard the hysteria around artificial sweeteners, that carbohydrates should be banned from the diet, and that blueberries will cure all ails – but where’s the evidence? These are theories I’m not going to be able to support until someone can show me the facts and figures.

    So what I would like to know is: why do journalists always feel they need to ‘balance’ views based on science with those that are not?  To stretch the argument, surely these same people expect decisions to be based solely on good science when they board a plane, not ‘balanced’ with unscientific theories about navigation?  So why insist on presenting views that are not supported by science as if they are as robust and valid as those that are science-based?

    What do you think? I’d be interested in hearing the views of both the theorists and scientists…

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