Animal disease research concentrates too much on the behaviour of micro organisms while ignoring the role played by human beings; we need to take more account of the human dimension if the work of scientists is to be translated effectively into policy, according to scientists at Lancaster and Liverpool universities.
The interdisciplinary project, which was carried out as part of the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, examined three animal diseases: Foot and Mouth Disease, Avian Influenza and Cryptosporidiosis. The team found that although policy makers need up to date information in order to take timely decisions, putting the research into practice may falter because the diverse perspectives of the people and organisations involved have not been taken into account.
Modelling of disease transmission and impacts tends to be built on the behaviour of disease organisms and animal vectors, but often disregards information about the behaviour of the people and organisations who manage the animals or who are affected by the disease, whether commercially, emotionally, or through risks to human health.
Such a partial outlook actually generates uncertainty in the management of disease, say the scientists. They also found a lack of transparency among the organisations involved about how they prioritise diseases. When management strategies are put into practice, their priorities often seem to clash. Where, as is common, diseases cross national boundaries these problems are often amplified because of international differences in regulation.
An interdisciplinary approach, combining natural and social sciences, can help to overcome this blinkered perspective and make research more effective.
Professor Louise Heathwaite from Lancaster University who co-led the project said: “There is a concentration on technical dimensions and a neglect of human factors with the result that the research can be lost in translation and fail to inform policy. Sometimes it can even increase uncertainty.
“What is needed is a consistently interdisciplinary approach to animal disease, combining economic, social and technical perspectives at every level: strategic, tactical and operational."
“In the past 25 years the UK has learned some very hard lessons indeed about how animal disease can affect human society in unpredictable and devastating ways,” said Professor Jonathan Wastling, who led the team at Liverpool’s School of Veterinary Science.
“By adopting a common framework for decision-making focussed on better communication between sectors and more open sharing of information, particularly about areas of uncertainty, we will improve not only animal health and welfare, but help to protect our food security and human health.”