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What makes researchers tick?

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VETERINARY researchers are increasingly using epidemiological techniques to investigate animal populations; it is rather more unusual to see such techniques being applied to veterinary researchers themselves. However, in a paper on pp 369-375 of this issue, Dr J. K. Murray and others describe an epidemiological investigation into the characteristics of veterinarians who pursue a research career.

The question of what makes a veterinary researcher tick is of more than just academic interest. Concern about a shortage of veterinarians pursuing a career in research, and about the practical implications of this shortfall, have been expressed for some time, most notably, perhaps, by the report of the Selborne inquiry in 1997, which found that ‘too few veterinarians were engaged in research’ and made a number of recommendations for putting that right (VR, December 13, 1997, vol 141, pp 609, 611-613; January 11, 2003, vol 152, p 29). The seriousness of the situation was recognised by the Government in 2004, when, spurred by the experience of foot-and-mouth disease and the report of the Royal Society’s inquiry into infectious diseases of livestock, it announced that, together with the Higher Education Funding Councils of England and Scotland, it would be investing £21·5 million over five years in a new Veterinary Training and Research Initiative (VTRI). The funding would be used to strengthen training in infectious diseases of animals in the UK and clinical research training at UK veterinary schools to ‘enable the next generation of veterinary graduates to provide the scientific evidence to help inform DEFRA’s policies’. The study reported in this issue, which was commissioned by the RCVS Research Committee, predates the VTRI and the numerous projects that have been initiated as a result. Nevertheless, understanding what motivates veterinarians to pursue a research career, and the factors which might act as disincentives, will be important in ensuring that research capacity is maintained and developed, and should help inform future policies.

The paper in this issue describes a retrospective, matched case-control study, comparing the characteristics of veterinary surgeons employed in veterinary research with those who had never held a research post. Key findings were that graduates pursuing a research career were more likely to be male than female, and that a career involving research was significantly more likely to be associated with full-time employment and a lower salary than a career that did not. Veterinarians working in research were significantly more likely to be those who had completed a summer studentship, a graduate internship, residency or houseman’s programme, or who held a diploma; they were also more likely to have intended to pursue a career in research or academia on graduating from veterinary school.

A second paper, to be published in next week’s Veterinary Record, analyses some of the reasons given by veterinarians involved in the study for following the career paths they had. The main reasons given for entering research were opportunities for more intellectual stimulation than was available in veterinary practice and having the chance to give research a try. The main factors that might cause a veterinary surgeon to leave research were given as lack of funding and job insecurity. For those working in research, the best aspects of the job were considered to be greater intellectual stimulation and a more varied workload; the worst aspects were conflicting work pressures and the lower salary. The main reasons given by veterinary surgeons for not considering a research career were that they enjoyed veterinary practice, liked the contact with animals and owners, that they did not consider themselves sufficiently academic and that they thought that the salary associated with a research career was poor.

There is much to consider in the two papers, but the finding that those working in research are more likely to be male than female needs to be investigated further, to establish why it is happening and how the situation might be addressed. The proportion of women entering the veterinary profession continues to rise so, unless appropriate steps are taken, making up the shortfall of veterinarians involved in research could become all the more difficult in the future. Veterinary science is by no means the only area of research where women are under-represented and the issues have been highlighted, for example in the Greenfield report ‘SET Fair’ in 2002 (VR, December 7, 2002, vol 151, p 681;May 3, 2003, vol 152, p 545) and, more recently, in a Department for Education and Skills (DfES) report on recruitment and retention of academic staff in higher education (VR, August 27, 2005, vol 157, pp 241-242). Although it was concerned with higher education generally, many of the observations in the DfES document were remarkably in tune with some of the findings reported in the papers by Murray and others, particularly with regard to its comments on what motivates researchers, and the damaging effects of the insecurity caused by overreliance on short, fixed-term contracts.

The papers by Murray and others should not be viewed in isolation, and should be seen in the context of various initiatives currently taking place, including efforts to strengthen links between universities, research institutes and practice, and involve more practitioners in evidence-based clinical research. Research training initiatives inevitably take a long time to come to fruition. The papers provide benchmark data against which the success of the VTRI and other initiatives might ultimately be judged.

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