7 Comments »Posted on Thursday 21 May 2009 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy


Doing the rounds this week is a story about a £300,000 government-funded research project that took three years to establish that ducks like water. Sounds like a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money, but is it? The newspapers certainly seem to think so:

Ducks like water study ‘waste of £300,000 taxpayers’ money’ – The Guardian
Boffins’ £300k study finds ducks like rain – The Sun
Farmers condemn £300,000 Defra ducks survey – The Telegraph
Just quackers! Government spends £300,000 on three-year study to show ducks like rain – The Daily Mail

The study in question, Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare, was published nearly a year ago in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers, from Oxford University, aimed to investigate the welfare of ducks reared for meat, as there is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide the waterfowl access to bathing or swimming water. Many ducks only contact with water is in the form of drinking water from so-called “nipples” – basically a small tube.

Depriving ducks of water is a bit like the much vilified battery-farming method of rearing chickens. By placing the animals in an environment very far from one they would find in the wild, farmers sacrifice animal welfare in order to make a profit.

This is not the most glamorous of scientific studies, but it could have wide-reaching implications. Approximately 18 million ducks were reared for their meat in 2006, so the welfare of a large number of animals could be affected.

With this in mind, researchers tested the effects of four different water sources on ducks. The birds had access to either a bath for swimming, a trough for dipping their heads in and splashing water on their bodies, or an overhead shower. The fourth group’s only access to water was through the nipple drinkers, which were also given to the other three groups. Over the course of a month or so, the ducks were inspected to monitor the conditions of their eyes, nostrils and feathers, as well as their behaviour and ability to walk.

The results showed that the ducks deprived of bathing water were not as healthy as the others. The condition of both their bodies and plumage were affected – surely quite important if you’re trying to rear healthy ducks for the dinner table. It didn’t seem to matter what form the ducks’ access to water came in – baths, troughs or showers all did the trick. The researchers recommend that farmers stick to showers, as they are easier and cheaper to maintain.

So yes, you could say that with help of £294,027 from Defra, (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) scientists were able to conclude that ducks like water. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you actually bother to research the details then you no longer have a news story. Journalists could have gone and read the paper, which is easily understandable even to the layperson, or perhaps looked up the Defra report. But they didn’t. With the media calling for MPs’ heads to roll over the current expenses scandal, another opportunity to attack wasteful government spending is always welcome. This story isn’t really about science – it’s politics.

Piecing together the background of this story, I suspect that it has been engineered by the TaxPayers’s Alliance. This organisation campaigns for lower taxes, and criticises wasteful spending of public money.

The TPA have their own take on the story, written as if it were a response to a report in the Daily Star. Curiously though, the Star piece has a quote from Susie Squires, the TPA campaign manager. Squires appears in many of the other newspapers’ reports as well.

Despite claiming to be an “independent grassroots campaign” against “politicians of all parties”, the TPA have a distinctly Conservative streak. Two of its founders, Andrew Allum and Florence Heath were both leaders of the Imperial College Conservative association, and Allum was previously a Conservative member of Westminster City Council. The other, Matthew Elliot, has received numerous Conservative awards.

It appears to me that this “story” has been manufactured by the TaxPayer’s Alliance in order to attack the Labour government whilst it is still reeling from the expenses row. The scientists who carried out the original research have unfortunately been caught in the cross-fire of a political battle, that has little to do with the actual subject of the study.

In the grand scheme of things, £300,000 to improve animal welfare is a small amount of money. In 2004, when this research began, Defra had a budget of £3.153 billion – meaning this research accounted for less than 0.01% of the total cash available. It’s easy to mock scientific research like this, but perhaps journalists should do some research of their own before writing up their stories.

JONES, T., WAITT, C., & DAWKINS, M. (2009). Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116 (1), 52-57 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.07.008

  1. 7 Comments

  2. Great post. Ring someone up and you could use it for your print assignment.

    By Sam Wong on Thursday 21 May, 2009 at 10:05 pm

  3. Now there’s an idea. Except it isn’t based off a press release, because the study is so old!

    By Jacob Aron on Thursday 21 May, 2009 at 11:33 pm

  4. Good one. They took the piss out of this study on Have I Got News for You tonight. So it’s good to get the reality.

    By Tom Rees on Friday 22 May, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  5. It’s all too easy to criticise what may look like silly research. However, such research often sheds new light on long held misconceptions.

    For example: my own research recently (at no cost to the taxpayer) has established that, contrary to popular belief, sarcasm is not the lowest form of wit and is, in fact, 2 levels higher than previously thought. The actual lowest form of wit would be practical jokes resulting in death.

    With regard to the duck research, we assume that ducks like water because they are never given the option of dry ponds to walk around in. Daftra have a responsibility to ensure that farm ducks are raised in acceptable conditions and it is quite right that they should fund research to establish this as fact rather than rely on assumption.

    I have read allegations that they might have ‘cobbled together’ this ‘research’ in order to account for a £300,000 deficit on the books. I want to make it clear that such an allegation is irresponsible and should not be repeated.

    By Ron Tocknell on Saturday 23 May, 2009 at 6:45 pm

  6. Ron, did you even read my post? The research was not done to establish whether ducks like water. Rather, the aim was to discover the most effective way of delivering water whilst also ensuring the ducks’ well-being.

    Perhaps you don’t care about animal welfare, but I’d rather eat meat from well cared-for animals. If nothing else, it tastes better!

    By Jacob Aron on Saturday 23 May, 2009 at 7:05 pm

  7. Do you really believe that the government would spend £300,000 on animal welfare? This is more likely to be in the interest of the food industry.

    I don’t see this money being spent to reduce the suffering of battery farmed chickens, do you?

    Watch out for the £2.99 supermarket duck.

    By Ron Tocknell on Wednesday 27 May, 2009 at 8:49 am

  8. Thank you for this. Being able to find a sensible blog post like this to get the factual details without the grubby, sensationalist news reports, is very useful.

    By TheBlindWatcher on Monday 1 February, 2010 at 5:44 am

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