In an increasingly competitive environment for research funding, directors at the Moredun Research Institute raised concerns around future access to Scottish Government funding in a recent press briefing.
The year 2020 marks 100 years of research into livestock diseases for animal disease research centre Moredun.
While plans to celebrate this milestone were shelved due to Covid-19, research work has continued, with specific focus put on supporting the fight against the pandemic.
But while farmer and Moredun chairman Ian Duncan Millar said the institute in Penicuik, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, was currently trading positively, he warned that the environment for funding science was ‘extremely competitive’ in the current economic climate.
Concern around future allocation of ever shrinking Scottish Government budgets was specifically flagged, given that the organisation currently takes 55 per cent of its funding from here.
Mr Millar said: “Like others, we have responded by becoming more efficient and making cuts where possible, but we have got to a point where further cuts will require a reduction to the headcount.
“If we do that, we will have to make decisions on which areas of science we fund and which we do not.
"This puts us at serious risk of losing critical mass - meaning that if we were called upon to help in specific research areas, we may find we no longer have the capacity and skill-set required.”
Moredun’s scientific director Prof Julie Fitzpatrick went on to stress the importance of a ‘one health’ approach whereby veterinary and medical scientists work together.
Moredun’s contribution to the Covid-19 pandemic was highlighted as a recent example of this, which it was able to undertake thanks to the specialist high containment facilities and highly trained staff it has in situ at present.
Prof Fitzpatrick explained that, working together with colleagues in the NHS, Covid-19 virus testing was able to be established by Moredun and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), together becoming an ‘academic testing node’ for the NHS’s testing programme.
Prof Fitzpatrick said: “Starting in June 2020, we have undertaken numerous samples for the NHS. We are now up to a capacity of about 1,500 tests per week, and we are working to increase that turnover.
“We were able to do this because we have staff who are trained in working with dangerous pathogens. We were therefore able to utilise that skill-set to working with the coronavirus quickly, and we also have the facilities to allow that to be conducted safely.”
But, with the institute having now reached the end of its current five-year funding cycle with Scottish Government, uncertainties were raised about capacity to carry out certain types of work in the future, although the current arrangement had been extended by one year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Prof Fitzpatrick [pictured right] said: “We are particularly worried that the Scottish Government is looking to reduce the proportion of money it spends on long term strategic research, in favour of putting more into shorter term responsive research.
“While we are involved in and on board with the latter, it needs to be combined with the fundamental, longer term research if we are going to continue to deliver.”
Owing to funds raised by donations, legacies and gift-aid from Moredun’s commercial subsidiary companies, the institute had, however, been able to employ a small number of ‘Moredun research fellows’, a group of younger scientists who are in the process of establishing their career path.
The fellows work entirely on research which is identified as a priority by Moredun and are being mentored by some of its senior scientists to help encourage and build the next generation of researchers.
Scientists at Moredun and the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh have joined together to develop three-dimensional cell cultures which mimic the stomach of cattle in a bid to better understand how some worm parasites interact with its host.
A particular gastrointestinal worm parasite that lives in the stomach of cattle and is highly prevalent in the UK and is being investigated.
Dr Tom McNeilly is involved in the research.
He said: “A major issue is that immunity to the parasite takes months to develop, which is thought to be due to the parasite suppressing immune responses within the stomach lining.
“This has the knock-on effect that infections impact production for long periods of time.
“Control of this parasite relies heavily on anthelmintic drug treatments and worryingly, there is now good evidence that the parasite is becoming resistant to many of these drugs, meaning existing treatments are becoming less effective.
“The industry will therefore need new methods of parasite control in the future - this could involve interfering with the parasites ability to suppress immune responses to allow cattle to control the parasite more quickly or developing new types of anti-parasite drugs.”