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Research at risk

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WHAT will be the arrangements for supporting research on animal diseases as the Government moves forward with its proposals on responsibility and cost sharing? How much funding will be available, and how will research in different areas, particularly work on endemic diseases, be maintained? At a time when the disease challenges are increasing, veterinary research is needed as never before. However, it is also vulnerable to developments and, as defra struggles with priorities and budgets, essential activity is potentially at risk.

These concerns have been prompted by reading the report of the recent review of funding, governance and risk management at the Institute for Animal Health (iah), undertaken by Professor Sir John Beringer for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (bbsrc).* The iah plays a key role in animal disease research in the uk and, between them, the bbsrc and defra provide most of its funding.

The report was commissioned following last year's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) in Surrey after fmd virus escaped from the iah site at Pirbright and, like other reports on the outbreak, provides some insight into how the complex funding arrangements and long-term underinvestment at Pirbright might have contributed to the release of the virus. It also draws attention to the unique and vital nature of the research undertaken at Pirbright and recommends that the new virus research facility being developed at the site is completed without delay. It emphasises the need for the new facility to be funded on a sustainable basis and makes a number of recommendations aimed at achieving this, including that the redeveloped Pirbright laboratory should be repositioned as a new ‘National Centre for Animal Viral Disease’ (see VR, May 3, 2008, vol 162, pp 566-567). The intention is that virology staff from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (vla) — Weybridge should be relocated to Pirbright once the new facility is ready and the report also includes recommendations for a single line of management and reporting when this happens.

The report also considers the future of the iah laboratory at Compton in Berkshire. At present, the iah occupies two sites, with work on exotic diseases being undertaken mainly at Pirbright, while most of its endemic disease research is undertaken at Compton. The Compton laboratory, too, is in need of modernisation, and the report argues that there could be advantages in merging the two sites, with the work at Compton being transferred to additional new facilities at Pirbright. This will be a decision for the bbsrc's Council. However, the report says, decisions on the best way forward for Compton must be made on the basis of the future need for research on endemic diseases — and it is its discussion of this issue that has such worrying implications for animal disease research generally.

The report explains that, over the past couple of decades, the bbsrc has maintained an increasing level of funding for research in the iah, while budget cuts and a lack of extra resources to finance full economic costing have resulted in a steady decline in funding from defra. The present outlook, it says, is ‘for continued bbsrc funding at about the same level as in the past few years, but further cuts from defra at both the vla and the iah’.

It notes that defra funding has declined particularly for endemic disease research and that this trend is expected to continue, ‘possibly to the extent of defra withdrawing support entirely, other than for work on foodborne zoonoses and bovine tuberculosis’. This, it says, raises the question as to what extent research on other endemic diseases should continue and how it should be funded.

defra's proposals on responsibility and cost sharing involve more responsibility for funding animal health and welfare being transferred to the farming and associated industries. While supporting the concept of engaging with users in helping to set research priorities, the report argues that the bbsrc needs to consider the possible impact of this changed mode of funding on longer-term basic research. Specifically, it remarks, ‘If the industry does not step in to pick up funding for endemic disease research as defra withdraws its support, then it could be argued that its priority for bbsrc should also reduce. bbsrc could be seen as having a duty as a main public funder of research on endemic diseases to maintain a core national capability, but we would question whether bbsrc could or should substitute for the entirety of defra's historical funding in this area.’

All this seems to suggest that the iah could be hit by a triple whammy of reduced funding from defra, reduced funding from the bbsrc and, unless additional funds are found and ring-fenced, the costs of maintaining an inherently expensive virus research facility. It is not just the iah that will be affected. Given that the bbsrc and defra support most of the animal disease research in the uk, and that the iah already receives the lion's share of the bbsrc's overall animal health research funding, the changes could have damaging implications for animal disease research generally. Day-to-day veterinary activity depends on the outputs of research, so this must be of concern to the profession as a whole.

Such concerns add weight to arguments in the report for a coherent overall strategy for animal health research in the uk, and for funding to be better organised and coordinated (see VR, May 10, 2008, vol 162, p 601). They also point to a significant hole in the Government's plans on responsibility and cost sharing which needs to be filled.

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