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‘WE recommend that a new Animal Health and Welfare Agency should be established. Animal health and welfare is simply too important to remain as at present; it must be given clear leadership and be made less vulnerable to budgetary fluctuations and “border disputes” between organisations.’

This is one of the more intriguing recommendations made in a report last month on funding, governance and risk management at the Institute for Animal Health (iah),* the result of one of a number of reviews instigated following last summer's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Surrey after fmd virus escaped from the research site at Pirbright. Commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (bbsrc), and undertaken by a group chaired by Professor Sir John Beringer, formerly of the University of Bristol, the report makes specific recommendations relating to the funding and management of the iah (see VR, May 3, 2008, vol 162, pp 566-567). However, some of its most interesting observations concern arrangements for animal health research generally.

The report draws attention to the crucial importance of research in providing the scientific knowledge and expertise that is needed to manage the risks associated with animal diseases, including diseases that can be transmitted to humans. It draws attention to the economic and other consequences of diseases like fmd and rightly points out that ‘it is imperative that the risks to the livestock industry, and to the uk food supply more widely, are managed effectively’.

The Government's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy sets a broad policy framework for safeguarding animal health in Great Britain but, the report points out, barely mentions the importance of research in informing policy and decision making, and provides no views on scientific requirements and priorities. ‘The uk currently lacks a coherent overarching national strategy for animal health research,’ it says. ‘Considering the social and economic importance of animal disease, we find it surprising that there is no common agreement between policy makers and funders on the key facilities, science and skills that are needed in this crucial area.’

In the short term, the report recommends that defra, working closely with the bbsrc, should take a lead in drawing together the main funders and stakeholders of animal health and welfare research to develop a joint national strategy for science and funding to underpin the management of risks from exotic and endemic animal diseases. ‘It seems self evident that there would be overall benefit for these funders to be party to a national strategy for research that at the very least sets out common science needs, maximises synergy and minimises duplication. Such a strategy would also benefit the research community which, whilst maintaining its flexibility to respond to emerging issues, would have a clear steer on the funders’ key priorities, something that is currently lacking.’

In the longer term, it suggests creating a new ‘national agency’ for animal health and welfare, perhaps modelled on the Food Standards Agency. Under this proposal, responsibility for animal health and welfare would be transferred from defra to the new agency, including responsibility for research, emergency response, diagnostics, surveillance and reference laboratories. The agency would also take responsibility for the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and Animal Health, and become the British competent authority in Europe.

The report admits that this would be a radical solution, but argues that there would be clear advantages in bringing responsibility for animal health and welfare under one independent and properly constituted body. ‘Not only would a new agency provide better integration and coordination at a national level, but it would also provide a ring-fenced budget arguably less sensitive to the ebb and flow of departmental priorities and financial constraints.’ To an extent, its proposal reflects one made by the bva in its response to the Government's consultation on cost and responsibility sharing: the bva suggested that animal health and welfare should be overseen by a non-departmental public body, like the Environment Agency (VR, April 26, 2008, vol 162, p 529).

The idea that funding for animal health research should be better coordinated is by no means new and it is surely time it was taken forward. Of equal, if not greater, importance, however, is a commitment to such research, and to ensuring it is properly funded.

Of the work of the iah itself, the report notes that the institute is at the forefront of animal health research and that, if it did not exist, the facilities would have to be created elsewhere. It also points out that work on animal pathogens, while essential, is expensive and that facilities of the kind currently being developed at Pirbright need to be funded on a sustainable basis. It suggests that the iah should be positioned as a National Centre for Animal Viral Disease, with relevant expertise being concentrated at a single site.

Few would argue that such a centre is not needed as part of a national strategy or that available funds should not be used to best effect. Fundamentally, however, animal health research needs to be properly funded overall; until that happens, and without the necessary commitment from government, any improvements in one area will almost inevitably lead to problems elsewhere.

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