16 November 2001
Beckett denies stifling BSE research

By Donald MacPhail

RURAL affairs secretary Margaret Beckett has denied that there are moves to suppress controversial BSE research – despite having no plans to renew its funding.

She was responding to a question in the House of Commons concerning funding for work by Alan Ebringer, professor of immunology at Kings College, London.

Prof Ebringer believes that BSE is caused by the acinetobactor calcoaceticus bacterium placing him at odds with most scientists who blame rogue prions.

His funding runs out on 31 December, and a presentation Prof Ebringer was to make to government BSE advisors SEAC has been put back until next February.

Labour MP Tam Dalyell asked Mrs Beckett if SEAC had “vested interests” in seeing Prof Ebringers work come to an end.

But speaking on Thursday (15 November), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs secretary said she was “not aware of any such interest”.

Mrs Beckett said Defra supported Prof Ebringers work, but admitted that there were no plans to renew funding.

“Although I have no current plans to extend that funding, there is no question of the research being in any way suppressed; it is supported,” insisted Mrs Beckett.

“We shall keep the funding issue under review,” she added.

Conservative rural affairs spokesman Peter Ainsworth said Prof Ebringers work deserves support and that “his findings deserve to be taken very seriously indeed”.

He asked if Prof Ebringers research only emphasises the need for Mrs Beckett to take account of scientific opinion beyond her own advisers at SEAC.

“Scientists show a natural reluctance to alter their opinions once they have reached a decision and published it,” he claimed.

Mrs Beckett insisted that Defra tried to keep an open mind “as SEAC itself does”, and “tries not to stifle an interesting new theory, wherever it may come from”.

Prof Ebringer says his work could lead to a BSE test for live cattle.