Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Association of Veterinary Teachers and Research Workers

  Unfortunately, at a time when careful and constructive political attention is being devoted to science in general, veterinary science, which although small, is being marginalised despite the fact that it attracts the very highest calibre of our science-motivated school leavers and features among our areas of international scientific strength.

  1.  The key issue identified in our earlier submission was the position of veterinary science within the Foresight programme. Our fears have been amply confirmed by the launch of the Healthcare Panel's 2020 Report and the discussion at the launch meeting at the DTI on 5 December. The Report makes no mention of either veterinary science or comparative medicine and when a member of our Council asked the Chairman about this his reply was "to be honest, I don't think we discussed it". This is particularly disappointing in light of the 1995 Report of the Health & Life Sciences Panel which stated that "Judged against the UK's average activity in all disciplines, we have a particularly strong presence in pharmacology, immunology, genetics and veterinary science" and the particular importance which was attached to "comparative medicine and veterinary pathology".

  Veterinary pathology has been in crisis for the last decade and comparative medicine is now at a moment of unique opportunity, through the MRC's initiative in establishing a Comparative Clinical Science Panel, subject to satisfactory funding. The attached Editorial from the Veterinary Record of December 16 is self explanatory[24]. The White Paper [p10, paragraph 35] rightly emphasises the importance of "getting the best ideas from Foresight 2000 put into action fast". Yet veterinary science seems to have been orphaned from this key instrument of strategic planning to maximise the public benefits accruing from scientific research—benefits to human health and animal health which would flow from reinforcement of our national strengths in veterinary science and comparative medicine. In this specific area, "priorities identified in the first Foresight reports in 1995" [paragraph 3, p26] have slipped out of sight and as a result we will not capitalise on one of our areas of genuine international competitiveness [paragraph 20, p18].

  2.  Paragraph 3 [p26] emphasises the central role of Foresight in integrating different aspects of our national skills-research, industry, policy making etc to increase national competitiveness. A key area of our national enterprise is to maximise the success of Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs). The veterinary healthcare network is precisely this—a chain of successful SMEs built upon a rapidly evolving set of exportable technologies. Both the expansion of the internet and relaxation of movement controls on animals present growing opportunities for international collaboration. Each veterinary graduate is the basis for job opportunities for a range of support staff, and each veterinary practice is part of the market for a wide range of support industries in diagnostic imaging, automated analysis, information technology, pharmaceuticals, surgical equipment etc. Indeed, the best veterinary practices set an example of healthcare delivery at local level which the NHS has yet to emulate. The White Paper [p4, paragraph 11] rightly emphasises the key role for Government in ensuring that there is the climate for innovation to flourish and for progress to be sustained. However nothing in the White Paper even glimpses the need to cultivate our strengths in veterinary science and to engage them in our national strategy, for the benefits of humans as well as animals, for welfare and for commercial success. Veterinary science is precisely one of the areas in which this country has "a remarkable record of world class research" [pi, paragraph 4] but in the subsequent words of the Secretary of State's introduction "excellence is only the start. It is not enough to generate research—we also have to make the most of it".

  3.  The Selborne Report of 1997 rightly identified one of the problems of veterinary research as being the lack of a strategic funding focus, especially for clinical research. The MRC was identified as one logical means of meeting this need, a view shared by this Association and the British Veterinary Association in its submissions to the Selborne Committee of Enquiry. We are pleased to report progress on this front with the agreement of the Council of the MRC (subject to satisfactory funding) to establish a "Comparative Clinical Science Panel" which will serve to:

    (a)  Maximise collaborative research between medical and veterinary clinical scientists.

    (b)  To exploit the opportunities to draw lessons concerning the causes, diagnosis and prevention or treatment of human diseases by studying the equivalent diseases among veterinary patients; these opportunities are especially important with multifactorial diseases (which are inherently difficult to model), also with diseases of shared environments, and with zoonoses.

    (c )  Raise the quality of veterinary clinical science and strengthen the evidence base for veterinary medicine.

    (d)  Directly involve practitioners, alongside laboratory scientists, in the planning and conduct of the research, and attract some of the brightest veterinary graduates to engage in research, alongside their clinical careers.

  This initiative relates directly, therefore, to the Government's objective in minimising the distance between identification of need, implementation of necessary research and delivery of benefit.

  At the moment the activation of the Panel rests on the ability of the veterinary enterprise to raise the requisite funding for an initial trial period of five years [£10 million pa]. The reason for this was to prevent public or political criticism of the initiative on the grounds that it "diverted funds from humans to animals" whereas the intention is to benefit both. It would enormously accelerate the implementation of this excellent scheme if the costs could be met by an additional allocation to the MRC budget for this purpose, alongside the other additional allocations [Science Budget, p17]. It is a prime example of an initiative to foster interdisciplinary research [paragraph 22, p19].

  4.  We welcome the emphasis on the need for academic careers to be rewarding if we are to attract and retain the brightest and the best [p12, paragraph 3]. While salary improvements are important [p9, paragraph 32] a veterinary graduate who follows a career in good quality practice, may, after five years, achieve a salary above the professional average, let alone the stipend for a post doctoral Fellow. It is essential therefore to ensure that research careers are "rewarding" [p12, paragraph 3] in a broader sense. In particular there must be some sort of career structure and reasonable security for those who perform well, as emphasised in paragraph 34, p23.

  5.  Turning to some broader issues, we welcome the affirmation [paragraph 38, p11] that "the market alone will not generate the basic investment in research". This is true of clinical investigations where no one company necessarily has a product benefit—eg nutritional change may be more beneficial than drugs, or multiple interventions may be needed for prevention. But it is also true of developing countries which may have enormous needs but slender resources to do the necessary research or purchase the requisite outcomes. A key factor in both health and wellbeing remains the ability to produce sufficient food of sufficient quality. In particular, there are areas, for example in Africa, where the environment is such that food production is always likely to be costly and require inputs which are ultimately environmentally damaging, compared with regions where the same food can readily be produced more efficiently. This requires a global view of the balance between production and need of the research required to optimise it; the necessary progress will not be achieved if it is left to market forces alone, nor if we are constrained by a purely EU view of supply and demand. While it is vital to maximise our opportunities to generate business from our science base [paragraph 20, p6] we have ethical as well as commercial responsibilities in harnessing our scientific expertise. "We need to make certain that all regions benefit from the development of new products and processes", we have global responsibilities, as well as being "in a global competition". [paragraph 23, 25, p8].

  6.  The issue of public confidence and political judgement of risk [paragraph 16, p5] is fraught with difficulty and quite different standards seem to apply to food scares or zoonoses, compared with mobile phones or component failures in widely used aero engines or aircraft. Evidence-based reassurance of consumers [paragraph 16, p50] is not helped by the fact that scientific employees engaged in non-military research based in Government establishments are bound by the Official Secrets Act. Indeed it is perhaps fortunate that few members of the public realise this constraint. Regarding the vital role of the media [paragraph 17] objectivity is not helped by having a growing proportion of TV output from independent commercial programme makers; their paramount interest for survival, like that of newspapers, has to be for what sells and what does not offend important advertisers. As a result there is an appetite for oversimplification, at best, to sensationalism at worst. Neither helps with issues which frequently turn on the balance of probabilities. A particular example of these difficulties is the contrast between the tight regulatory requirements to substantiate claims of efficacy and safety for conventional medicines and the lack of comparable safeguards with regard to complementary remedies—or of the necessary research. The current faith in these remedies is mostly based on anecdotal evidence and media enthusiasm, rather than evidence of the quality demanded of conventional medicine. This is true of both human and especially veterinary medicine. Who should be responsible for such research is a moot point, granted that the likelihood of negative outcomes is high.

  7.  The need for universities and others to learn from one another [paragraph 39, p44] is properly emphasised and the closer links between the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the veterinary schools are consistent with this objective as is the initiative outlined in paragraph 3 above.

  8.  Paragraph 35 et seq, p24. There is no better example of a scientific career in which women have flourished than veterinary medicine, with the huge majority of students and recent graduates now female, and the tendency to remain professionally active even after assuming responsibility for children.

  9.  Paragraph 8 p14. The need to promote science to children is paramount as is the need to enable them to realise that research is the engine of progress, not a threat to future generations, or to the environment or to animals. There is no area of applied science which attracts the public, particularly children, more powerfully than veterinary medicine. It provides the ideal opportunity to build on an instinctive affinity, rather than instinctive suspicion, and to emphasise the link between scientific progress and benefit to future patients, both human and animal. But to do so, it has to continue to advance and we have reservations, as already expressed, that at present there is insufficient concern to sustain its momentum within the national science strategy.

8 January 2001

24   Not printed. Back

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