Public Administration, Science, and Risk Assessment: A Case Study of the U.K. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Crisis

Authors

  • Matthias Beck,

    1. Professor of risk management in the Division of Risk, Glasgow Caledonian University, and principal director of the Cullen Centre for Risk and Governance. He was a principal investigator during a two-year, U.K.-government-funded project researching risk-management practices in public–private partnership and has testified in major public inquiries. His interests include organizational failure and organizational learning in relation to risk assessment and management. E-mail: mpb@gcal.ac.uk.
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Darinka Asenova,


    1. Lecturer in the Division of Risk, Glasgow Caledonian University, and a member of the Cullen Centre for Risk and Governance. Her principal interests are in the area of public-private partnerships, risk communication, and management. d.asenova@gcal.ac.uk.
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Gordon Dickson


    1. Currently chief executive of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland. He was previously pro vice chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University and has been the vice chairman of the Greater Glasgow Health Board since 1994. E-mail: gdickson@mddus.com.
    Search for more papers by this author

Abstract

The bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak in the United Kingdom is regarded as one of the worst public policy crises the British government has experienced during the postwar era. In material terms, it has led to the slaughter of 3.3 million cattle and estimated economic losses of £3.7 billion. In administrative terms, the crisis brought about the dissolution of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This article examines the istitutional context in which decisions about the scientific evidence on BSE were made. The authors argue that a centralized system in which government agencies control science for government is inherently vulnerable to alliances of experts and interest groups that undermine the credible assessment of public health and safety risks. Specific societal conditions may encourage risk-opportunistic behavior among policy makers that is conducive to delays and inaction until such time as the evidence of a health risk becomes overwhelming.

Ancillary