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Science and the AHVLA

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THE AHVLA plays a pivotal role in protecting Great Britain against the threat of animal diseases, including diseases affecting people, so its recently published science strategy* is clearly of interest. Covering the years 2012 to 2015, it is, in fact, the first such strategy to have been published since the AHVLA was created last year by merging the agency Animal Health with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Between them, these two Defra agencies played a vital role in safeguarding animal and public health, and one of the reasons for the merger, which combined the field expertise of Animal Health with the investigative and disease surveillance functions of the VLA, was ‘to improve the resilience of the combined agency to deliver a cost-effective service in the light of the Government's spending review’ (see VR, April 9, 2011, vol 168, p 366).

The science strategy must also be seen in the context of the AHVLA's recently published Corporate and Governance Plan (VR, June 23, 2012, vol 170, p 632). This makes clear that the agency is working in ‘a complicated and changing environment, against a backdrop of a very tough economic climate’. It also notes that the agency's financial plan is based on the assumption that research spending ‘only falls’ by 20 per cent between 2010/11 and 2014/15. In view of this, it is perhaps not surprising that, in an introduction to the science strategy, the AHVLA's chief scientist, Professor Glyn Hewinson, should describe it as having been developed ‘against the backdrop of a very challenging external environment’. Nevertheless, given the background, the strategy itself seems to make sense. It identifies activities that the AHVLA is in a unique position to perform, and explains how it intends to meet what is required of it in the light of changing circumstances. Reassuringly, given the financial and other pressures, it also makes clear that science is fundamental to the operation of the AHVLA and ‘must be at the heart of all we do’.

The strategy recognises that the AHVLA's research is aimed at solving practical problems and that, within the national scientific community, the agency operates ‘in the space between universities and Research Council Institutes on the one hand and users of scientific services and evidence on the other’. For many years now, this kind of research has not been as fashionable or attracted as much funding as more fundamental research; nevertheless it is hugely important and it is unfortunate that activities are being squeezed at a time when, in theory at least, the value of applied research is apparently being recognised and espoused by the Government.

Logically, and perhaps inevitably in view of the cuts, the strategy focuses on developing core capabilities for dealing with disease threats, discussing these in terms of threat awareness, threat definition and threat mitigation. It talks of multidisciplinary approaches, working in partnership, and developing and strengthening collaborations in the UK and internationally. It tries to steer clear of a strategy based around disease priorities, on the grounds that these tend to ‘ebb and flow’ depending on policy requirements. However, in organisational terms, the AHVLA's science directorate is to be realigned into four departments to better reflect the main categories of threat it is interested in: bacteriology, food and environmental safety; bovine TB; TSEs; and virology.

The strategy document rightly points out that developing the AHVLA's science will depend on developing the skills and capabilities of its staff. It places welcome emphasis on developing a clear career pathway for career progression which, in view of the Government's propensity for outsourcing, is reassuring. Perhaps less reassuring is a comment that, in developing its estates strategy, the agency envisages having to rationalise its Weybridge site to allow reinvestment to develop fit-for-purpose facilities for the future.

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of the AHVLA's activities to the work of the veterinary profession and to safeguarding animal and human health. The strategy document draws attention to the significance of its role in relation to pandemic influenza, although it could just as easily have referred to one of any number of diseases or to the agency's predecessors' role in identifying and dealing with BSE. As it points out, ‘A unique feature of the agency is that we bring together so much of the nation's animal health and welfare activities into one place.’ The Government is committed to making savings and keeping its agencies at arm's length. However, it must not lose sight of how much it depends on the AHVLA's output and the need to maintain national capability in this area.

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