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Improving policy and evidence-based decision making in response to biosecurity threats

This Blog post was written by Katherine Macinnes for the open-access research e-newsletter International Innovation, about research by Professors Alberto Franco and Gilberto Montibeller in the SBE.

Policies implemented in response to emerging biosecurity threats should be highly adaptive. Loughborough University researchers are looking to improve the frameworks underlying threat prioritisation, so that policy makers can respond to disease outbreaks better and faster.

Undoubtedly, a rapid policy response can make all the difference in tackling a new disease outbreak or any other biosecurity risk. The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak graphically illustrated this: it led to the death of almost 4 million animals in the UK, in part due to culling measures implemented to tackle the spread of the disease.

With the thousands of livelihoods destroyed by the outbreak, the UK Government necessarily launched inquiries to investigate what lessons could be learnt from the devastation. However, scathing reports were released on the Government’s response to the threat, and a Government adviser even suggested that imposing a ban on farm animal movement three days earlier could have halved disease spread.

Professor L. Alberto Franco

Professor L. Alberto Franco

Gilberto Montibeller

Professor Montibeller

But what if, instead of reacting to biosecurity threats after they have happened, we were to better prioritise emergent risks in terms of severity and develop policy in response? Fascinating research by Professors Gilberto Montibeller and Alberto Franco of Loughborough University is allowing policymakers to do just that.

PREDICTION DIFFICULTIES

Although the Government was criticised for its management of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, poor decisions are typically grounded in lack of adequate risk management processes. The emerging nature of biosecurity threats means that small risks suddenly blow up overnight, while limits on time and resources available for analysing threats also hinder effective policy.

“Dealing with emergent threats is very tough because of the limited amount of evidence available when they appear, and the pressures imposed on policy makers to develop appropriate and timely responses to these threats,” notes Montibeller.

Ultimately, risk mitigation efforts – such as banning transport of animals or rolling out a vaccine – cost money. Policy makers have few resources to hand and must also consider the wider consequences. For example, implementing a ban on animal transport would significantly affect agricultural productivity, so if a threat is not high risk it is difficult to justify its implementation.

PRIORITISING BIOSECURITY THREATS

Montibeller and Franco have produced a framework that policy makers can use to accurately prioritise biosecurity threats, thus allowing resources to be allocated much more effectively.

Based in Loughborough’s School of Business and Economics, they have been looking at the challenges policy makers face by drawing from their expertise in decision and organisational sciences.

This has included assessing multiple threat impacts and looking at how non-numerical data can be incorporated to create a risk indication. This is vital as experts can be reluctant to provide precise estimates, for example of disease prevalence, at an early stage of threat emergence.

IMPORTANT ADVICE FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY

Montibeller and Franco’s work is already making a real difference to risk mitigation strategies in the UK and elsewhere.

The framework was employed to develop support systems for risk management for biosecurity threats picked up by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). It has helped to design policy recommendations and prioritise threats.

The reach of this research has broadened even further. For example, it has supported the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to prioritise low-moisture foods considering their risk and trade volume, and it is currently informing developments by the Pan-American Health Organization of their capabilities against animal-borne diseases evaluation.

LOOKING FORWARDS TO MANAGE BIOSECURITY RISKS

Using the research from Loughborough University’s School of Business Economics, government and international agencies can certainly make improvements to their emerging threat management strategies.

Perhaps most importantly, the research paves the way for better prioritisation of threats. Money – as always – is limited and evidence-based decision making is vital for making sure it is directed to the areas where it is most needed.

“Biosecurity threats, such as emergent diseases, will not go away and therefore managing them effectively is critical,” says Franco. “This is why we keep working with managers and policy makers to develop cutting edge decision methods to support and further develop risk prioritisation capability.”

This Blog post was written by Katherine Macinnes for the open-access research e-newsletter International Innovation, about research by Professors Alberto Franco (Leader of the Management Science and Operations Management group and head of the Visual Decision Practices RIG) and Gilberto Montibeller in the SBE.