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Priorities and research

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THE Government's proposed Animal Health Bill stole the headlines last week but two other documents that were published around the same time should not be overlooked. On January 26, Defra published its 'evidence investment strategy' for the next three years and beyond,1 while, on January 28, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) published its strategic plan for 2010 to 2015 2. Between them, Defra and the BBSRC fund the lion's share of research relating to animal health and welfare in the UK, so both are important documents in their own right.

With the world facing significant challenges in terms of climate change, limited resources and meeting the demands of a growing population, it is important that the money available for research is spent wisely, particularly when funds are in short supply. This point seems not to have been lost on Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at Defra, who, in a foreword to its strategy, remarks: 'There has never been a time when there was a greater need for good-quality evidence to contribute to policy making and sound decisions, yet this need comes in the midst of a global economic downturn, the ferocity of which has taken us all by surprise.' Similarly, while highlighting the global challenges, Bob Watson, Defra's chief scientific adviser, also draws attention to the 'increasingly difficult economic climate', and calls for 'a step change' in Defra's approach to evidence and innovation. The concern, for those involved in and who depend on research, must be that, as new priorities are set, important areas of activity might lose out.

Animal health research features in the research strategy primarily in the context of Defra's objective of 'Ensuring a thriving farming sector and a sustainable, healthy and secure food supply'. The strategy document makes all the right noises about a 'joined up', interdisciplinary approach involving collaboration with other funding bodies, and, in this respect, reflects the approach rightly advocated in the 'UK Cross-Government Strategy for Food Research and Innovation' published in January (VR, January 9, 2010, vol 166, p 32). However, a statement in the document that 'There are areas of Defra's portfolio where we see future needs for evidence growing or shrinking, eg, a modest reorientation of priorities from areas such as animal welfare and pesticides towards water, biodiversity, soils and climate change would improve both the overall impact of our investments on the delivery of Defra's strategic objectives and our ability to respond to the big evidence challenges' is less than reassuring. Also potentially worrying are Defra's plans to 'review our large monitoring and surveillance programmes on marine and animal health and welfare issues to ensure that we continue to get best value for money'.

Elsewhere, the document notes that Defra will be working with industry on responsibility and cost sharing (RCS) on animal health surveillance which, given the vital importance of surveillance, and in view of the current controversy and uncertainty surrounding RCS, has to be of serious concern. The Government's proposals for RCS involve setting up a new non-departmental public body that will take on Defra's current responsibilities for animal health (VR, January 30, 2010, vol 166, pp 124-125). However, it is not clear to what extent responsibility for research and surveillance will be transferred and, crucially, how this work will be funded.

As Defra's relative contribution to animal health research declines, the BBSRC's contribution will become more important. Food security represents one of the BBSRC's three major research priorities for the next five years, and animal health will be an important part of this. 'UK strength in animal science is crucial to sustainable food production,' the BBSRC says, and it will be supporting research 'in areas which have profound implications for food security and safety such as animal health and welfare, genetics and genomics for improved breeding, and endemic and exotic diseases including zoonoses'. Among other things, it will be investing £100 million for redevelopment of the Institute for Animal Health's Pirbright laboratory, to 'strengthen the UK's strategic capability to protect livestock and other animals, including people, from infectious diseases'.

Like Defra's evidence strategy, the BBSRC's strategy reflects the collaborative approach set out in the Government's cross-departmental strategy published in January. There has long been a need to coordinate funding for animal health research more effectively and this approach is in many respects admirable. However, there will always be a limit to what can be achieved by increased efficiency and realignment of budgets, and concern must remain about whether sufficient funding will be available over all.

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