Richard Benyon's Bad Science - How Data is Ignored by DEFRA

24/10/2012 10:39 BST | Updated 23/12/2012 10:12 GMT

I've never been a deeply ideological person. I think part of this comes from studying a science degree which required an enforced neutrality. Part of it is an understanding that my principals do not dictate the nature of reality. The denial of reality is one of the ugliest aspects of dogma. If there's one place where dogma rules the roost, it's inside Richard Benyon's Department for the Environment.

The Minister for Rural Affairs has had an incredible year for ill thought-out policy u-turns. Firstly his call for a Buzzard cull was admitted by his department to be based on 'anecdotal evidence'. This is the equivalent of me asking some friends down the pub (let's call them 'stakeholders') what their problems were and using those comments to form government policy. Not only are you likely to get skewed data, the data itself is just opinions. If you happen to ask a group (say farmers) who have a vested interest (pay me money to shoot things) you are likely to have a predictable outcome (Farmers need money to shoot things).

Richard Benyon didn't seem to fixate on the fact that his own department had admitted it had poor evidence for carrying out a cull at public expense. In fact Richard Benyon didn't seem to mind that DEFRA had miscalculated the amount pheasants lost to Buzzards by a factor of 25.

Benyon barely blinked at the non-sense of shooting Buzzards to protect pheasants that will later be shot.

DEFRA undeterred then decided to embark on solving a problem that did actually exist - Bovine TB. This preventable disease causes the senseless loss of thousands of cattle in the UK each year.

Sensibly the Conservative party brought on board one of the leading scientists in behavioural ecology John Krebs. The centre-right think-tank the Bow Group published a paper working with Krebs in which he indicated the badger cull will have no impact on Bovine TB and may even increase its spread. The Bow Group itself stated: "The Government's [badger culling] policy is bad for farmers, bad for wildlife and bad for the taxpayer."

Despite the evidence being from a Tory think-tank DEFRA decided to push ahead regardless of evidence, public opinion or cost. Krebs dubbed the agreed Badger culling policy as 'mindless'. Once again it was dogma, not data that mattered to DEFRA.

The policy is currently being shelved until next year - though it may be only be on ice because the Conservatives are busy mopping up the fallout of other policy gaffes, Osbourne's 'Great Train Snobbery' and of course 'Plebgate'.

It seems u-turns are becoming something of a Conservative speciality in this Parliamentary term. Most worrying of all is that our tax money is being spent on pursuing the anecdotal claims of farmers or policy completely against the current scientific body of evidence.

DEFRA has an appalling record I have discussed previously of mistepping, bungling and u-turning. Benyon's bad science has already done much to damage his ministry - maybe the evidence suggests it's time for change at DEFRA?