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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Angela Cassidy

19 Oct, 2015

Dr Angela Cassidy is a contemporary historian of science and medicine, and Wellcome Research Fellow at the Department of History, King’s College London. Her work, which focuses on bovine tuberculosis (TB), explores the way that scientific and public debate evolves over time. She is interested in how societal priorities change, and what we lessons can be learnt from the way that issues around bovine TB, and other controversial issues, are originally framed….

What are you working on?

Angela CassidyI’m investigating the recent history of bovine TB in the UK, trying to understand how and why public, policy and expert debates around the disease have changed between the 1960s and the present day.

Things have changed a lot: by the 1960s bovine TB had mostly been controlled and it was widely expected that the disease would be eradicated in the near future. At that time bovine TB was still a public health priority, as transmission from cattle via infected meat and milk had been a significant source of human TB until well into the 1940s.

The disease risk for humans was eventually regulated away by developing today’s systems of meat inspection and milk pasteurisation. In turn, veterinarians played a central role by developing and delivering new systems for testing and eliminating bovine TB in cattle herds.

Today bovine TB is framed very differently, largely because this regulatory system means that very few people or cows in this country actually get ill (although bovine TB is still a problem for global health). Instead the main risks fall upon society, taking the form of economic costs (for industry and government), emotional and cultural impacts (on farming communities), and political fallout (as the current government is discovering).

At the same time, the rates at which cattle have tested positive for bovine TB have gone up, slowly at first and then sharply since the early 2000s, meaning that all these pressures have been getting worse. In turn, badger culling, one proposed solution to the bovine TB problem, is itself viewed by many people as an environmental risk.

Government vets first found that badgers could contract bovine TB in the early 1970s, and we’ve been arguing about whether they transmit the disease to cattle, and what to do about it, ever since. Expert reviews, arguments over ‘the evidence’, culling policies, public protests and political grandstanding are all familiar features of debates about bovine TB throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. What’s changed is the number and variety of people involved, the public visibility of the controversy and the polarised and entrenched views of those involved.

So I’m trying to understand how we got from one situation to the other, and to see if there are any lessons to be learnt from these earlier debates.

What does your average day involve?

Lot of my research is done online so most days I’m at my computer – digital technologies have transformed the working practices of contemporary history, meaning that newspapers, scientific journals and some archives are available via online databases, and of course the internet itself is a vital resource.

However, lots of the other information I need falls into an awkward gap between historical archives and today’s society, so I have to do a lot of digging and hunting out old policy reports, correspondence and photocopied bits and pieces in specialist libraries and personal records.

My most valuable resource is actually people – many of the scientists, vets, campaigners and other professionals who were involved with bovine TB during the last century are still around – they not remember the events of the time, but also what they learnt from their predecessors. I’m therefore also trying to tap that resource using oral and public history techniques, so that we can work together to write this history.

When I’m not at my desk, I could be in a specialist library or archive; helping organise a Witness Seminar on the topic, visiting people who used to work on bovine TB to interview them, travelling to field sites, labs and farms where scientific research was and is being done, speaking about my own work, working with my colleagues at King’s, teaching, or helping to organise research networks (academia can’t happen unless we talk to each other!). All that means I can be found on a train pretty often!

Why is your work important?

One of the most striking features of today’s bovine TB controversy is the way that the events and ideas of the recent past get recirculated, usually by people involved in one side or other to support their arguments. A good example of this is when Princess Anne suggested last year that badgers should be gassed rather than the trapping or shooting techniques being used at the moment – culling methods and specifically gassing were the topic of intense debate in the late 1970s, which led to a policy review by a senior scientific Lord (Zuckerman) and eventually led to the abandonment of that technique.

The existing historical scholarship on bovine TB mostly stops around the middle of the last century, and while there’s now some fantastic social science being done on today’s situation, there’s a glaring gap in our understanding of what’s happened in between. My job is to start building a more considered long view of bovine TB in the UK.

Beyond my current research, I think that getting a clearer understanding of how different disciplines interact and communicate with each other, policymakers and wider public audiences is pretty vital. Getting some perspective on how those interactions have changed over time is also a really good idea, especially given today’s fast-changing society.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

‘Impact’ is an unpredictable beast at the best of times, and even more so for humanities and social science scholars!  In an ideal world, it would be great if my work could help open up possibilities for a more respectful, productive debate about bovine TB, as well as how people live alongside wild animals. It would be even better if it contributed to a more nuanced approach to science/policy interactions – from both sides. Bovine TB also illustrates beautifully how disease problems tend to be biological, veterinary, medical, ecological, economic, social, and political all at once, and I think that we’d all benefit from tackling human and animal health from this perspective.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Like many life scientists, David Attenborough got me hooked on natural history and evolution as well as popular science from a very early age (I had a copy of Life on Earth before I could read properly…).

At university I did a joint psychology and zoology degree at Bristol and then moved across to social and historical research about science communication as a postgraduate at Edinburgh – most of my research asks how and why public scientific controversies happen and where they come from. Studying a joint degree got me interested in interdisciplinarity, and interactions between the ‘social’ and ‘natural’, which has also been an ongoing research theme. I also first learned about bovine TB as an undergraduate, and then years later secured some funding to research it myself as a case study of public scientific controversy.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

Wellcome funding has been incredibly helpful for my work: firstly by enabling me to collaborate closely with historians of biology and veterinary medicine, and then by supporting my current research on the history of bovine TB. One of my earliest findings was that the keys to understanding today’s controversy lay in the past. Wellcome funding has made it possible for me to follow up on that initial insight and build a long-term research agenda, which as an early-career academic would otherwise be very difficult to do.

Wellcome support has also made it possible for me to work on a three-quarters time basis for the past few years, meaning I’ve been able to work flexibly from home as well as on site with my colleagues at King’s, share childcare and generally be around for my family while my kids are still small, which has been absolutely brilliant.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“So, should the badgers be culled?”

For a start, I’m not trying to answer that question, I’m trying to find out why people have come to disagree about it so vehemently. My other response is that this is the wrong question – the sound and fury of the YES!/NO! debate about culling is a huge distraction from dealing with a bunch of difficult, complicated, underlying problems – not just bovine TB itself, but also (for example) how people and wildlife can and should live around each other, the problems of the dairy industry, how international trade handles the regulation and control of disease, and problems of evidence and policymaking.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“What do you do [for a job]?”

My PhD is officially in ‘science studies’, itself a combination of social and historical approaches to understanding how science, technology and medicine work. The topics I study mean that I also bring in ideas from fields like science communication or animal studies so my work is very interdisciplinary –so a proper answer would be awfully longwinded! These days I alternate between ‘contemporary historian of science’ and ‘I research scientific communication’.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I love photography and take pictures pretty constantly these days (smartphone cameras are a wonderful thing). I’ve used images and visual methods in my research before now, but would love to find more and different ways of building creativity into my work.

What keeps you awake at night?

I look at how the bovine TB debate has become increasingly polarised, with both sides now in such entrenched positions that it’s very difficult for anyone to move forwards. I worry that this might be part of a larger trend, in contemporary debates about science (think of the climate debate), and in politics more widely. Hopefully I’m wrong about that, but I still wonder how we can step away from this kind of polarisation.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Academia’s a tough business, so take time to look out for those below you on the ladder.”

The Academic Kindness Tumblr and Twitter account are fantastic reminders of this.

The “Chain reaction” question, posed by our previous spotlight-ee Prof Vikram Patel is this, “With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently if you were to start your research career again?”

Rather than putting everything into writing my PhD thesis, and then publishing the research as articles, I would definitely have started the publication process earlier. It would have speeded things up career-wise, and probably would have made writing the thesis a lot easier!

You can find out more about Dr Cassidy’s work by visiting her website and reading her (open access) papers on ‘Big Science’ in the field and Vermin, Victims and Disease. We’re celebrating Open Access Week this week – so what better time to remind you that all the Wellcome Witness seminars, including the recently published volume on the history of bovine TB, are open access and free to download online.

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