By Justin Greaves, David Carslake, Habtu Weldegebriel & Graham Medley
Infectious disease of livestock remains an important problem, seriously damaging rural economies, producing social disruption and impairing public trust and confidence in government. It can result in animal suffering, and potentially affect the health of humans and wildlife.
Livestock disease has generally been seen as a scientific, public health or epidemiological problem, and it has traditionally remained the responsibility of scientific and veterinary professionals. However, retrospective analysis of the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic has shown that there are clear, strong economic, political and legal dimensions to livestock disease. The interaction of all these dimensions creates a complexity, which is particularly apparent when policy must be formulated to control disease.
Policy choices are shaped both by specialist advisors within government and by external stakeholders such as farmers, drug companies, vets and international organisations which set standards and rules. Political analysis, therefore, should focus on the response of stakeholders to the disease control interventions identified by epidemiological modelling and to the incentives emerging from economic analysis. There is a great deal of complexity in this area in terms of the range of different diseases and the menu of policy options. For example, livestock disease in the UK is divided between the ‘endemic’ (those that are always present) and the ‘exotic’ (those which are usually absent but may appear as occasional epidemics). Exotic disease has largely driven disease management policy (at least at government level), partly because endemic disease is embedded within the system, and is more difficult to understand as the epidemiological, economic and political impacts are less easy to discern when nothing changes. Such complexity results in a need to bring together a variety of theoretical and analytical perspectives from different disciplines, which highlights the link between complexity and the need for interdisciplinarity.
In recognition of this need for interdisciplinary research into the understanding and control of livestock diseases, academics from the departments of Biological Sciences, Politics, Law and Economics at the University of Warwick have been working together under the umbrella of the Governance of Livestock Disease (GoLD) project. The project is funded by the Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use programme (RELU) which supports interdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists.
Traditionally, problems have been framed from a mono-disciplinary standpoint so that, for example, an epidemiologist will see an epidemiological problem and provide an epidemiological solution. But many are now making an overt connection between interdisciplinarity and complexity. The argument is that real world problems are too multi-faceted for one discipline (or scholar) to address and thus require solutions which involve multiple disciplines.
Work within disciplines is now complemented by interdisciplinary co-operation which offers a more effective mechanism for tackling the challenges faced by society. This shift in perception regarding the mode of knowledge generation is reflected in the break away from the use of linear models to represent and solve complex problems to the adoption of network or web models of learning, with multiple nodes of connection. It is also reflected in a break with the notion that the best way to understand social reality is to break it down into separate chunks which can then be neutrally observed.
It is argued that interdisciplinarity is most useful if the object studied is complex but its various components fall within the research boundaries of different disciplines. In the context of GoLD, we can consider the challenges faced in getting insight into the economic aspect of livestock disease. On its own, economics cannot provide such an insight without biological information regarding prevalence and without epidemiological information regarding disease spread. Even when such a set of information is made available, the economic model which is thus built will not be complete without information regarding the political interaction among stakeholders and decision-makers in designing and implementing legislation. Since this information base has spatio-temporal dimensions, the economic model that is built needs to be non-linear. Therefore, given that, on its own, economics is not adequate to analyse the economic aspects of livestock disease and that use of a linear model falls short of the challenging task of dealing with a complex problem, it becomes mandatory that the economist work in collaboration with other disciplines within the framework of non-linear models. The complexity arises in this case both within the disciplines (for example, the economics of livestock disease is not simple), but also in the interaction between the processes acting within the different disciplinary spheres.
It is very important to get the balance right between 'complex problems' and 'complex solutions’. In any analytical strategy, there is a trade-off between parsimony and complexity. In cases where the links between the various facets of the object of study are insufficiently robust for interdisciplinary solutions, a given discipline can (and should) work primarily within its own boundaries. Adding more variables to an explanation will always improve the match with the reality that we observe, but at the cost of a cumbersome solution that is hard to interpret and implement. We need to get value for our variables, including only those with the greatest explanatory power. Simple models may best explain complex problems. One of the greatest challenges of interdisciplinarity is to maintain a parsimonious simplicity in the face of the complexity brought about when disciplines combine.
‘One of the greatest challenges of interdisciplinarity is to maintain a parsimonious simplicity in the face of the complexity brought about when disciplines combine.’
The authors of this article, who represent three different academic departments in the University, are collaborating in a research project on the Governance of Livestock Disease (GoLD), funded by the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.This project considers a range of issues around animal disease: how policy is decided; who should decide whether a disease should be controlled by elimination and how they should make that decision; for a given level of regulation, to what extent disease is controlled, and who should decide the target level to which any disease should be controlled.