Research into how to deal with public health threats such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, terrorism and obesity is being dangerously neglected, some of the country's leading health experts warned this week.
A working group of public health specialists, convened by the Wellcome Trust, published a damning report about the state of science in the field.
It concludes that public health research is seriously under-resourced and largely ignored until times of national crisis.
Stephen Frankel, professor of epidemiology and public health at Bristol University and chair of the working party, told The Times Higher: "Public health science is always very important. But the difficulty is maintaining the level of funding required in a competitive environment. It can get pushed aside by new developments in genetics and so on."
Although public health issues such as the possibility of chemical and biological terrorist attacks dominate the media, the report says that in 2003 just 0.4 per cent of biomedical research publications were relevant to public health.
It warns that young scientists are being put off entering the field by a lack of infrastructure and "ever-growing" levels of bureaucracy. It points out that researchers are struggling with a stream of new regulations controlling consent and data protection, including the Clinical Trials Regulations, the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act and the human tissues bill, which is under discussion in Parliament.
The group says a national strategy is needed to rescue research in this area. A white paper on public health is due this summer.
The report calls for a top-level funders group to focus on public health science and long-term investment in the academic infrastructure. It also calls for the establishment of public health centres to bring together scientists from different disciplines.
"We need to invest now in the next generation of specialist public health scientists to prepare for the increasingly important role they will need to play, given the high prominence public health is receiving from government," the working group concludes.