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A drop in the ocean

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JUST before the end of last year, Defra announced the establishment of a new collaborative centre dedicated to helping the Government understand natural and environmental risk. At first sight, this might not seem particularly relevant to the veterinary profession. However, the new centre, based at Cranfield University, represents one of the first activities to be accredited under a much larger collaborative research programme aimed at tackling some of the challenges likely to confront the planet in the coming decades. Importantly, as well as being concerned with environmental issues such as flooding and climate change, the programme will also be concerned with animal diseases.

According to Professor Robert Watson, chief scientist at Defra, who gave a clear exposition of the challenges facing the planet at last year’s BVA Congress (VR, October 4, 2008, vol 163, p 401), ‘Scientific information plays a vital role in finding solutions to the challenges of climate change, natural disasters, and animal diseases. This new centre will be at the forefront of finding ways to assess the risks of issues like flooding and animal and plant diseases and will improve Defra’s ability to compare different types of risk and their impacts.’

The centre will work closely with Defra to assess the probabilities and impacts of these risks and feed the information into Defra’s policy development. As such, its work will clearly have an impact on policy decisions and spending by the department.

The decision to establish the centre reflects advice from Defra’s Science Advisory Council, which felt that the department needed to develop a more consistent approach to comparing risks across different areas of its remit, such as animal health, the rural economy and the environment. It will be funded to the tune of £1·2 million over the next three years, with joint equal funding from Defra, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council. Although this is clearly a significant sum, it is a drop in the ocean compared with the amount earmarked for the ‘Living with environmental change’ (LWEC) programme, of which the project forms part.

The LWEC programme, a collaborative venture involving the UK research councils and various government departments and agencies, was launched in June last year and, according to a government press release issued at the time, ‘will transform how researchers, government and the public interact to tackle the key environmental challenges: climate change; loss of biodiversity; the availability of sustainable water and food supplies; preparing for and managing extreme events; protecting people, animals and plants from disease; and alleviating poverty in developing countries’. The Government has indicated that £1 billion will be devoted to this programme over the next 10 years, although it has also made clear that ‘the larger part of LWEC will be built by the partners realigning relevant existing and planned research programmes, actively directing them to meet the LWEC aims and objectives.’

It is encouraging that animal disease research has been included in such an ambitious and potentially far-reaching programme, and that the various funding bodies are collaborating and coordinating their activities in such a significant area. However, with overall funding being limited, and much of the funding being redirected from existing sources, care must be taken to ensure that the importance of veterinary and animal disease research is not overlooked, and that they do not get swamped in a programme whose remit is so wide. A report commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and published last year following the escape of foot-and-mouth disease virus from Pirbright highlighted some of the problems inherent in the current arrangements for funding animal disease research, and it remains essential that these are resolved (VR, May 24, 2008, vol 162, p 665). Meanwhile, a report on infectious diseases published under the Government’s Foresight programme in 2006 drew attention to the relationship between many diseases in animals and humans and made the point that it was not only important to develop new technologies for tackling emerging and re-emerging diseases, it was also important to apply them appropriately (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605). At a time when Defra is seeking to transfer more of the costs and responsibility for animal health to the industry, there must be concern about how much support will be available for animal disease research in the future. It must be hoped that some of the work undertaken by the new centre at Cranfield might contribute towards the subject getting the attention it requires.

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