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Joined up on research?

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EARLIER this month the Royal Society made a plea for an integrated ‘one medicine’ approach to infectious disease research in the UK. This would require ‘collaborative efforts between human and veterinary medicine — in funding agencies and government departments as well as by researchers’. It noted that ‘due to the high cost of epidemics there is a strong economic argument for protecting the future of the UK's precautionary research base through increased investment in infectious disease research’ and that ‘a more integrated approach to infectious diseases would lead to overall improvements in public health and decrease response times to major outbreaks’. However, it pointed out that infectious disease research is currently fragmented, with funding arrangements and government departments being divided on human/animal health lines, making a joined-up agenda difficult.

Like a number of other organisations in recent months, it recommended that redevelopment of the Institute for Animal Health's (IAH's) facility at Pirbright should be considered a priority. It further suggested that a National Institute for Infectious Diseases should be created to bring together human and animal research (see VR, February 7, 2009, vol 164, p 160).

Given the challenges that infectious diseases present to both human and animal health, and the need to make best possible use of the knowledge available in the veterinary and human sectors, the Royal Society's plea is timely. However, it would be important to ensure that the funding available for animal health research was firmly ring-fenced, to prevent this vital work being swallowed up by the much larger human enterprise. Also, as a first step, it will be necessary to ensure that policy on animal disease research is itself joined up. At present, this is not the case, as continuing uncertainty about the future of the IAH facility at Pirbright demonstrates all too clearly.

Over the past year, the importance of the work undertaken at Pirbright has been highlighted by the Anderson inquiry into the 2007 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, the Beringer review of funding, governance and risk management at the IAH, and the House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee, which described the redevelopment at Pirbright as being of ‘considerable national importance’. As things stand, the IAH relies on dual funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Defra, but the Beringer report, in particular, expressed concern that Defra's contribution was declining. Defra's response to the Anderson report, which was published earlier this month, has done little to allay that concern, simply stating that the BBSRC would be developing a business case for redevelopment of the Pirbright site and making a bid to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) for funding (VR, February 14, 2009, vol 164, p 193).

The Council of the BBSRC has since met to discuss its plans for the IAH in light of the Government's response and last week announced that it had unanimously agreed that, in the longer term, the IAH, which currently occupies sites at Pirbright and Compton, should become a single-site institute based at Pirbright. The BBSRC would now move forward urgently to prepare a business case for the DIUS, initially for the redevelopment of Pirbright and then for the long-term transfer of science from Compton.

That much seems reasonably clear but, as a report from a Science Sub-Group of the BBSRC, on which this latest decision was based, points out, a number of uncertainties remain, not the least of which is how much support will be available from Defra. This will be important not just in terms of developing the Pirbright site, but also in terms of the type of work that might be undertaken in future. The BBSRC's subgroup expressed concern about declining support from Defra for endemic disease research, as well as about whether it would continue its commitment to exotic disease research and the provision of high-level containment facilities. With regard to endemic diseases, it noted that the importance of research had not decreased, ‘particularly in the context of a likely renewed focus on animal production in future’. Regarding exotic diseases, it remarked, ‘Any decline in Defra's support for exotic disease research would make BBSRC's related research prohibitively expensive. It would also compromise the ability of the UK to manage future disease outbreaks.’

At present, much of the uncertainty surrounding the future of animal disease research seems to stem from Defra's pursuit of its agenda on cost and responsibility sharing, the outcome of which is itself uncertain. Until this and other issues are resolved, a truly integrated approach to infectious diseases seems a fairly distant prospect.

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