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Vets and research

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THE eradication of rinderpest, which was confirmed by the FAO this week, provides an inspiring example of how the application of veterinary expertise can have a global impact. However, there are many other instances where veterinary R&D, coupled with the application of veterinary knowledge in the field, has contributed to global development, and there is undoubtedly potential for more. In a review on p 16 of this issue, researchers at the Institute for Animal Health discuss the situation regarding peste des petits ruminants while, in an editorial on p 10, some of those who have been involved in the eradication of rinderpest argue that this should be the next disease to be targeted.

Veterinary research, such as that undertaken by Walter Plowright in the 1950s which led to an effective tissue culture vaccine against rinderpest, is crucial to progress, and research undoubtedly benefits from the unique insights that veterinary surgeons, with their practical insights and broad-based scientific education, can bring. The benefits of veterinary involvement in research are by no means confined to diseases affecting animals, as illustrated in 1996 by the award of a Nobel Prize to veterinarian Peter Doherty for his work on the immune system. Veterinarians have contributed and continue to contribute much to research but, despite the efforts that have been made over the years, attracting enough vets into research continues to prove difficult.

In the UK, concern about the number of veterinarians pursuing a research career was highlighted in the report of the Selborne inquiry in 1997, which found that ‘too few veterinarians are engaged in research’ and made a number of suggestions for putting that right. In 2004, prompted by the experience of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 and a report from the Royal Society, the Government, together with the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Scotland, launched a £21.5 million Veterinary Training and Research Initiative to strengthen clinical research training and training on infectious diseases of animals. More recently, in 2007, the Wellcome Trust launched a further £10.7 million initiative to help encourage vets to take up research careers and train the next generation of researchers (VR, September 29, 2007, vol 161, p 436).

Such initiatives recognise the importance of the contributions that veterinarians can make to research and, judging by the enthusiasm shown by those currently involved in projects (Vet Record Careers, VR, October 30, 2010, vol 167, pp i-ii), will continue to bear fruit well into the future. However, effort must continue to be devoted to making vets and veterinary students in particular aware of the opportunities presented by a research career, not least because the vocational nature of the veterinary degree means that, for most undergraduates, the idea of subsequently undertaking research is unlikely to have been the main reason for taking the course.

Unfortunately, with changes in the arrangements for university funding in England, encouraging vets into research in the UK looks set to become harder. The introduction of higher tuition fees from 2012 and the consequent increase in debts on graduation will affect all undergraduates, but will particularly affect veterinary students because of the length and intensive nature of the course (VR, February 19, 2011, vol 168, p 170). The prospect of immediate financial reward has never been the main driver for pursuing a research career. However, the need to pay off the significantly higher debts that will result from the hike in tuition fees could push veterinary graduates who might otherwise be interested in research into pursuing other, potentially more lucrative, options instead.

One way to encourage people into research is to expose them to the excitement of research and the enthusiasm of researchers early in their careers. In this respect, it is perhaps worrying that, partly driven by changes in the way research in universities is being evaluated (which will affect how funds will be allocated), some universities are currently in the process of separating their veterinary research and teaching functions. Research and teaching go hand in hand and, as this happens, particular care must be taken to ensure that the necessary linkage is not lost.

Speakers at a recent symposium at the University of Liverpool, held to mark the forthcoming retirement of Sandy Trees, a former dean of Liverpool veterinary school, did much to convey the excitement of research and the particular contribution that vets can make in relation to both animal and human health. Among the messages that emerged was that vets continue to be needed to help determine the extent to which the results of laboratory studies currently being carried out on mice might usefully be applied to other species as well as to provide insights that can prove to be of genuine benefit in the field. Vets play a vital role in research, and must continue to get involved.

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