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Engaging with research

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IT IS getting on for 20 years since, in 1997, the report of the Selborne committee's inquiry into veterinary research expressed concern that ‘too few veterinarians are engaged in research’. Despite various initiatives in the meantime, that concern remains today. This was evident from a meeting held in London last week which brought together people from universities, research institutes and industry, as well as potential funders of research. Organised by the UK's Veterinary Schools Council, the aim was to present a vision for veterinary research for 2020, and identify areas of strength, challenges and opportunities. As Joanna Price, dean of Bristol veterinary school, commented at the start of the meeting, the aim was not ‘to admire the problem’, but to identify ways of ensuring that the vision could be realised.

It was clear from presentations at the meeting that there is nothing wrong with the quality of veterinary research: this had been demonstrated in the most recent Research Excellence Framework exercise – ‘REF 2014′ – in which all of the UK's veterinary schools performed well in terms of research quality and impact (VR, January 17, 2015, vol 176, p 58). Nor was there an issue in terms of its relevance: given current interest in, for example, food security, antimicrobial resistance, One Health and the threat posed by zoonotic diseases, veterinary research could, if anything, be considered even more relevant now than when the Selborne committee reported in 1997. Where there was an issue, however, was in the number of people involved and the amount of research being done.

The meeting included presentations on research projects being undertaken in UK veterinary schools and elsewhere, which highlighted the current relevance of veterinary research and scope for the future. The projects discussed exemplified the vision for veterinary research that was presented at the meeting, which was ‘to develop the UK veterinary research capability to improve animal and human health and welfare whilst ensuring sustainability of the environment and security of the food chain’. Topics discussed ranged from antimicrobial resistance in people and animals to cross-species research on diabetes and cancer, from understanding how diseases spread globally to making best use of ‘big data’.

With much of today's research being interdisciplinary, there was inevitably some discussion of the particular contribution that veterinarians can make. The point was made that, like doctors engaged in human clinical research, they could provide a ‘whole animal’ approach to a problem, but over a wider range of species. In addition, in view of their training, they understood systems, which was particularly relevant in view of the nature of current global challenges. With a number of presentations at the meeting having focused on comparative medicine and One Health, the point was made that there was a continuing need for research into ‘veterinary problems’, and for scientists from other disciplines, as well as veterinarians, to be involved in this. All this tended to reinforce a comment made in a report produced by the RCVS Research Subcommittee a couple of years ago that precisely what is meant by veterinary research needs to be more clearly defined (VR, June 8, 2013, vol 172, p 592).

With regard to One Health, it was suggested that, while the relevance of this concept in terms of understanding and tackling infectious diseases had had a good airing, there was a need to emphasise its relevance in relation to non-infectious diseases, too. Meanwhile, regarding clinical research and the development of evidence-based veterinary medicine, the point was made that research was not just a matter for the veterinary schools; it was something that all practising vets should be involved in, at least to some extent, on an everyday basis.

On the matter of strengthening the academic research base, schemes introduced as a result of initiatives such as the Clinical Veterinary Research Training Initiative (VR, September 29, 2007, vol 161, p 436) had proved helpful but it was felt that more needed to be done to develop a postgraduate career structure for ‘clinician scientists’, as discussed in a Viewpoint article by Richard Mellanby and others in last week's Veterinary Record (VR, November 28, 2015, vol 177, pp 544-547). Although only a proportion of veterinary graduates might be expected to pursue this kind of career, such people were needed both to inspire and mentor the next generation of veterinary scientists, and develop the confidence and abilities required to compete for research funding at the highest level. Obtaining research funding has long presented a problem in the veterinary field, particularly with regard to companion animal and equine research, with opportunities for funding either not being there or falling between various stools. However, according to representatives of some of the major funding bodies present at the meeting, their current areas of interest present a unique ‘window of opportunity’ for veterinary scientists. That said, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, pointed out that that window would not remain open forever, and encouraged researchers to submit applications now.

It was clear from the meeting that the veterinary profession must continue to be fully engaged in research, and make every effort to strengthen its research base in academia and practice. As one delegate remarked, as a science-based profession it remains important that the veterinary profession does research; if it didn't, it shouldn't call itself a profession.

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