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NEWS reported on p 553 of this issue that the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) has been awarded £38 million by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as part of a national programme for supporting and sustaining strategically important research is welcome, not least because, only a few years ago, the future of the IAH's research facility at Pirbright was in doubt. The funding is in addition to more than £250 million that has been devoted by the BBSRC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to redeveloping the IAH's facilities at Pirbright and, as the IAH reported last week, will enable the institute to maintain its status as a world-leading centre for virology, doing work that protects livestock from economically important diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, bluetongue and Marek's disease. Governments are not necessarily renowned for putting their money where their mouth is. However, the new funding – part of a £250 million investment in the UK biosciences announced by the BBSRC – provides tangible and welcome evidence that the Government recognises the strategic importance of research on viral diseases of livestock. It can also be seen as reflecting a resurgence of government interest in food security issues, and recognition that combating diseases of livestock will play an important part in helping to meet the world's future demand for food.
The funding was announced by the universities and science minister, David Willetts, during a visit to the Babraham Institute near Cambridge last week, and discussed further in a lecture given by the minister at the University of East Anglia later the same day. The minister's lecture was primarily concerned with setting out the Government's ‘vision for an industrial strategy, underpinned by technological advances’, and explaining the role that government can play in working with researchers, universities and businesses to promote innovation and get the greatest possible economic value from this. However, he also highlighted the importance of agricultural research and technology, and made some useful comments in the process. In particular, he drew attention to the value of comparative clinical science, arguing that more effort was needed in this area.
Specifically, he referred to a speech given by the Prime Minister six months ago that focused on the role of the life sciences in human health. But there was, said Mr Willetts, ‘the other half of the biosciences – from animals to agri-foods’.
This other half, he pointed out, ‘draws on many of the same scientific advances, notably genomics, as human health. It also has important links to human wellbeing. The epidemics of the future may be zoonotic – the result of a pathogen crossing the species barrier and attacking humans. We still do not do enough to link veterinary science and medical science in a shared research endeavour of comparative clinical science. And the security of food supplies is a real challenge as the population grows and climate change threatens some traditional agricultural areas. We really would be failing to deliver on our obligation to future generations if we left them with a public health crisis and a deterioration in food supplies.’
It is quite unusual to hear a government minister speak of comparative clinical science and the need to develop the links between veterinary and medical science in such terms, and to advocate the ‘one health’ concept so explicitly. Indeed, it may be the first time it has happened. It is to be hoped that the minister's views are shared across government, and that all the relevant funding bodies take note.
While highlighting the importance of fundamental research, Mr Willetts nevertheless pointed out that the Government's commitment to research in the biological sciences was ‘only a first step’.
‘We need to do much better at linking our upstream research to the practical needs of farmers and the food industry,’ he said, adding that BIS would be working with farmers, the food industry and Defra to ensure the research was applied as effectively as possible.
Having lain fallow for many years, interest in agricultural research, including applied research, seems to be undergoing a revival. This presents new opportunities. Veterinary science has much to contribute in this area and there is clearly a role for the profession here, both in basic research and helping to ensure that the results are applied.
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