Students' mistaken belief that in vivo research is becoming obsolete is factor in low take-up, writes Melanie Newman. Plans to encourage a new generation of academics to take up careers in live animal research have been outlined by the Biosciences Federation and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
The proposals, which aim to halt a decline in graduates skilled in animal research, include measures to increase awareness of employer demand. Focus groups uncovered anecdotal evidence that students wrongly believed that animal testing would become obsolete because of advances in molecular biology, the report says. "This misconception needs to be addressed urgently."
Biosciences graduates seemed unaware that senior management positions in research facilities often required an understanding of the challenges of in vivo work, the report adds.
It recommends that universities and research councils fund 36 new taught masters places focusing on animal skills from 2009.
The authors want employers to work with academics to increase the number of work placements that include in vivo work by at least 50 per cent by 2010.
Richard Dyer, chief executive of the Biosciences Federation, said: "The underlying factors behind the decline in numbers need to be tackled. Success in the long term will depend on the scientific community recognising that in vivo techniques are not just an optional add-on at the end of a scientific process."
A survey of relevant employers, including universities and charity research organisations, found that three quarters had experienced difficulty in recruiting suitably qualified staff. While employer demand for vivisection skills has been stable over the past ten years, supply has declined.
"Fewer students now study the practical aspects of whole animal physiology and pharmacology, and those who do spend a much smaller proportion of their time on in vivo work than was the case historically," the report says.
Changes to curricula, increased regulation, high costs and doubling of student-staff ratios had driven the decline, it explains.
The report adds that 15 per cent of permanent in vivo teaching staff are due to retire in the next five years. It warns of the potential for an adverse impact on the capacity for research and training in academia, particularly if current industry needs were met, at least in part, by recruitment from the academic sector. Academic fellowships might be required to maintain capacity for research and teaching in vivo skills.
Richard Barker, director general of the ABPI, said: "The future of medicines development in this country depends to a large extent on having people with the right in vivo skills. Significant progress has been made through joint public and private sector working, and we all need to work in partnership so that the UK can retain its historical strengths."
- The number of scientific procedures carried out on living animals increased 4 per cent to 3.01 million in 2006, according to Home Office statistics. Mice, rats and other rodents were used in 83 per cent of procedures. The number of procedures using primates was 4,200, down 10 per cent from 2005.
- Increase, by at least 50 per cent, the number of employer placements with in vivo work
- Funding for 36 masters places over three years to provide exposure to in vivo techniques
- Increase the number of PhDs who use in vivo techniques
- Recognition of subdisciplines that include in vivo techniques (pharmacology, physiology, toxicology and pathology) as strategically important and vulnerable subjects, an official government classification that recognises their importance to the economy and society as well as their vulnerability because of low student demand.