Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum from the Institute for Animal Health


  1.  The Institute for Animal Health (IAH) is a world-leading centre of excellence, and the major centre in the UK, for research on infectious diseases of livestock. It has three sites, located at Compton in Berkshire; Pirbright in Surrey; and the Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh. The IAH is one of seven research institutes sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

  2.  The mission of the IAH is "to deliver high quality fundamental, strategic and applied science into infectious animal disease and, from that knowledge, to advance veterinary and medical science, enhance the sustainability of livestock farming, improve animal welfare, safeguard the supply and safety of food, and protect public health and the environment".

  3.  This document is submitted to the Committee following the oral evidence sessions held on 1 November 2006 with the directors of three BBSRC-sponsored institutes, and with the Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food) and the Chief Scientific Advisor from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It will address:

    —  Continuity of IAH funding from Defra.

    —  Meeting the full economic cost of research.

    —  Redevelopment of the Pirbright site.


  4.  The IAH is a key research contractor for Defra, and has undertaken research for the Department over many years. In recent times this funding (apart from the exception of a block grant for disease surveillance) has been in the form of discrete contracts for specific pieces of research, with no guarantee of continuity from one contract to the next. While this is clearly in keeping with Defra's approach to all its research contractors, the uncertainties associated with it cause significant problems, both for the management of the institute and for the long-term well-being of the UK research base in areas of high importance to Defra policy. The main issues relate to retaining expertise and skills, and to the maintenance of key biological resources.

Expertise and skills

  5.  Difficulties are caused to IAH for two main reasons in respect of Defra funding:

    1.   A reduction in Defra funding streams per se from one grant to the next.

    2.   Indecision or delay by Defra to continue with funding, even when IAH has been approached in the first place to undertake an area of work.

  6.  The impact of these scenarios is that either key individuals at IAH are lost as individual projects finish (1 above) or that IAH has to fund staff with bridging funds from the core budget for the months during which Defra takes key decisions (2 above). The latter action then leaves other science projects with potential funding shortfalls or results in reduced budgets for other areas of activity within the IAH.

  7.  The loss of key staff and key skills is a major problem when Defra funds are terminated or reduced. A good example of an area where the institute has recently stepped in to maintain work after partial loss of Defra funding is cellular immunology as it relates to studies on enteric pathogens, principally the gut-dwelling Eimeria (coccidial) parasites. The complexities both of the host immune response to infection and the presentation to the host of protective parasite antigens mean that the IAH, through many decades of research, has world-class expertise and investigators in this area. When funding for this work was reduced by Defra and IAH risked losing skills both relevant to the remaining Defra-funded work and, more importantly, to a broader science base (including studies on Salmonella), IAH chose to retain the senior scientist on the project through the use of the institute's core strategic grant funded by the BBSRC i.e. to subsidise Defra related work. Interestingly, the work of this individual in the past three years has led to the identification of a new platform technology for the identification of protective antigens in complex pathogens. This work is now being considered by potential commercial partners and IAH is seeking to establish a spin-out company.

  8.  Defra are currently delaying their decision to continue funding on bovine respiratory syncytial virus and IAH was actively encouraged by Defra during early 2006 to apply for follow-on funding for the current work (which ended in October 2006), only to be told that funding in this area was awaiting the end of the Defra moratorium on spending. IAH has written to Defra to ask for a bridging sum to cover the time interval between the end of the old grant and the start of the new grant, which will be at least 6 months as the expected start is March 2007, but has not received any response, either to that request or any indication as to whether the new grant will be signed-off. Again if the specialist resource for Defra's work is to be retained by IAH it will have to be subsidised by using the BBSRC funded core strategic grant.

  9.  In other cases (including work on exotic viruses at Pirbright) flat funding during the past three years for the Reference Laboratories (ie a significant cut in real terms) has meant that key areas of work, including some critical state-of-the art diagnostics, has to be undertaken by PhD students at the very beginning of their research training—and not by experienced technical staff.

Biological resources

  10.  Among the great strengths of IAH are its genetically defined lines of poultry and cattle. The institute currently has 11 genetically-distinct lines of poultry and the collection is unique anywhere in the world. It currently costs approximately £0.8 million per annum to maintain the breeding flocks alone. Although these resources are essential for the internationally renowned poultry research funded by Defra and, critically, underpin new studies on avian influenza that cannot be done anywhere else the Department does not contribute to the on-going maintenance costs. Similarly, IAH's genetically-defined lines of cattle are essential for research programmes in bovine immunology and directly support Defra-funded work on bovine TB. If the institute did not pay for the on-going costs of maintaining these biological resources, they would not be available on demand for essential Defra programmes and would not enable the IAH to respond to new disease challenges.


  11.  When Defra funding is secured for a given piece of research, the level of funding does not reflect the actual costs of the research, as defined using the full economic cost (FEC) model introduced following changes to the funding of Research Council grants. Despite discussions during 2005-06 aimed at renegotiating the costs of research, Defra funding on the majority of its programmes has remained level in cash terms. Calculations show that the ensuing shortfall can be as much as 40%. The IAH has received an uplift in absolute funding in the area of exotic virus research (eg research into foot and mouth disease) but even this is not at a sufficient level to meet FEC costs. Elsewhere, the IAH has received flat funding, at best, for work on non-exotic pathogens—which means a ~40% cut in FEC terms.

  12.  Defra also funds the core activities of the reference laboratories at the IAH's Pirbright site, which provide emergency diagnostic services for a number of strategically important animal diseases, including foot and mouth disease, African swine fever and bluetongue. This funding is provided through a block grant, the level of which has remained at £1.7 million pa in cash terms for the last three years ie a real term cut. In addition no account has been taken of the increased costs relating to the introduction of FEC making the real cut even larger and leading to a reduction in staff and consumables. The Visiting Group to the IAH in June 2006 noted that the equipment in these laboratories was in desperate need of investment, but this is not possible without additional funding from the Department.

  13.  In some cases, the gaps in funding which result from Defra's decision-making processes are again met from the IAH's core funding, again provided from the DTI's Science Budget via BBSRC. But this results in financial pressure on other institute activities and is not sustainable in the longer-term.


  14.  Work is now underway on the new Pirbright Laboratory which will provide a new Centre for Veterinary Virology supporting scientists from both the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (at Defra's request) and IAH. The budget for the new build is £121 million including inflation and, in terms of capital expenditure, both DTI and Defra have committed their full contribution for the life of the project (2004-12). Operating costs of the new Laboratory will be higher than the existing Pirbright Laboratory and the most recent version of an "Affordability Model" shows a funding gap of £8.2 million per annum.

  15.  BBSRC are committed to paying their proportionate share of the affordability gap, but Defra have not yet been able to commit to funding its/VLA share of the potential future funding gap—as per Recommendation 1 of the Gateway 2 report of 9 February 2006. This commitment is being sought as a matter of considerable urgency as the main builders are working on final plans and costings, and are due to start work on the main laboratory complex in July 2007 after completion of the Gateway 3 procedure in May 2007.

November 2006

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