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IT is a truth not widely enough acknowledged, particularly in times of austerity or when there is a hiatus between disease outbreaks, that veterinary research is well worth doing. The value of such research is clearly underlined by a recent report from an RCVS research subcommittee, which attempts to provide a snapshot of how much is currently being spent on veterinary research in the UK while also attempting to quantify its contribution to the economy and society as a whole.1 Trying to work out how much is being spent turns out to be harder than it sounds, partly because a clear definition of what constitutes veterinary research is lacking. Nevertheless, a worrying conclusion of the report is that funding seems to be reducing, at a time when investment is needed as never before.
Starting from the principle that the veterinary profession is science based, the reports notes that veterinary research has been responsible for some remarkable achievements over the years, ranging from the global eradication of rinderpest to production of the first vaccine against a retrovirus (feline leukaemia virus). It also notes that it has a significant part to play in meeting some of the major challenges currently facing the world, by helping to address inefficiencies in the food chain and thus contributing to national and global food security, for example, or by minimising the losses associated with animal and zoonotic diseases. It draws attention, too, to the contribution of research to improving food animal welfare, as well as to the conservation of wildlife. Importantly, it also highlights the role of research in improving the health and welfare of companion animals and horses; funding for research in these areas has been neglected by successive governments for far too long, particularly when one considers the contribution of these sectors to the national economy.
The subcommittee estimates that about £128 million was spent on veterinary research in 2009/10, with most of the funding being provided by Defra, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Wellcome Trust, with universities securing about 45 per cent of the overall sum. Comparison with previous years is difficult, because of changes in the way funding is allocated by government and administered by the research councils. However, comparing the situation in 2009/10 with that in 1997, when the Selborne committee highlighted particular challenges facing veterinary research, and excluding the contribution of the BBSRC, it calculates that investment in veterinary research has fallen by 5.5 per cent. It notes that Defra's budget for research on animal health and welfare decreased by 10 per cent between 1997 and 2010 and that, over the same period, support for academic veterinary research in universities has increasingly been provided by the research councils. ‘Research in the veterinary sciences constitutes approximately 20 per cent of Defra's overall research budget,’ the subcommittee points out. ‘Considering the high financial impact of animal health and welfare in the country's economy, it can be argued that this value might not adequately reflect the risks associated with animal disease and the sustainability of the food chain.’
Some of the most striking figures in the report relate to a mismatch between investment in research and the costs of diseases to the national economy. Thus, for example, discussing BSE, it notes that, in the financial year 1995/96, at the height of the BSE crisis, more than £3.5 billion was spent in the UK on controlling and dealing with the disease, yet public funding for research in this area was limited to less than £10 million. Campylobacteriosis was estimated to have cost the UK more than £500 million in 2009/10, while investment in research on the disease around that time was less than £4 million. By looking at the level of investment in research on these and other diseases, the subcommittee found evidence that funding for veterinary research tends to follow a reactive approach, peaking after a zoonotic disease outbreak, rather than taking the proactive strategic route that is needed. It also found that funding can change dramatically from year to year, which makes establishing a solid research infrastructure difficult.
One of the more positive messages to emerge from the report is that the quality of veterinary research undertaken in the UK remains high, despite the shortfalls and vagaries in funding. Nevertheless, it points out, competitor nations are catching up and there remains a need to strengthen the research base in view of the nature of current global challenges and the importance of innovation to future prosperity. The report makes a strong case for investing in veterinary research. At the same time, it makes clear that, given the dynamic and multidisciplinary nature of much research activity these days, what actually constitutes veterinary research needs to be more clearly defined.
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