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The Case for Veterinary Research Funding

A print verison of this column appears in the summer issue of the CVM Magazine.

Veterinarians, like most people, take new knowledge and techniques for granted. These improvements, however, do not spring forth from the waves like Venus in an oyster shell. They are the result of a research process that requires support, nurturing, and resources. Veterinary medicine cannot ignore the origins and amounts of resources required to allow veterinary-specific research  to happen

To be fair, there is a lot of medical research done for humans that benefit animals. But in veterinary medicine there are still important questions that will never be answered by human-focused research. Veterinary-specific research is critical to our four-legged family members, our livestock, and ultimately our profession. There are some areas of research in veterinary medicine that are simply not relevant to human medicine.

Consider caging. Recent studies funded by the Morris Animal Foundation demonstrated that the included features, not the size of cage, in which cats are held while in shelters makes an enormous difference on their stress levels, their susceptibility to upper respiratory disease, and their behavior. By changing shelter housing design, millions of previously un-adoptable cats may now be eligible to find loving homes. This is not hyperbole. It is hard to imagine how this research could (or should) have been funded by the National Institutes of Health or other government sources.

In 2013, the NIH budget request was $30.83B, about 80 percent of which is to be provided to researchers outside NIH in the form of some 50,000 grants. Only a fraction of those grants will go toward research into animal disease and even that research needs to have an impact on human health. That’s understandable. Dogs, cats, horses, wildlife, and production animals don’t pay taxes. But the money needed to fund research and create new knowledge must come from somewhere, and an understanding of those sources is useful for those who benefit from veterinary research.

In the U.S., funding for veterinary research comes from three sources: government (both state and federal), industry, and non-profit organizations. Government funding of veterinary research usually comes in the form of grants awarded by NIH, United States Department of Agriculture (specific to livestock) or the colleges of veterinary medicine themselves as a part of a state appropriations. NC State University has worked hard to establish a strong veterinary research program, but this is not the case in all areas of the country.

Industry, typically veterinary pharmaceutical, pet food, or animal production companies, also fund veterinary research. This work is very useful but highly applied. The drawbacks of such funding are restrictions typically placed on scientists who want to share the data, and the fact that the research needs to be directed toward registering or selling a product or service. While understandable, such perimeters do limit the impact and scope of potential research.

A third funding source is the non-profit world. There are lots of organizations, each with its own story, but in general these organizations derive their revenues from donors and pass them on to researchers in the form of grants. Each group has its own mission, often focused on a specific species or disease. These non-profits play an important role in veterinary research and could become even more significant in the future as rates of government and industry funding decline. Because applications for funding at the best of these organizations are evaluated by objective panels of experts, studies supported by such non-profits tend to be highly impactful, well-conceived, and competently executed. It is our belief that, barring significant changes in the political and economic landscapes, non-profit funding represents the best hope for sustained long term growth in veterinary research.

The standard of care and the quality of tools veterinarians have today are better than at any other time in history. Livestock and companion animals receive medical care rivaling human medicine. But the questions remaining are great, and the need for new research is virtually limitless. Veterinary medical research funding levels will likely never rival those that exist in human medicine, but there are solid arguments for why they should be significantly greater than present levels. Through caring owners, educated producers, and engaged veterinarians, funding from all sources can and should increase.  There is great work to be done.

Dr. David Haworth is the President/CEO of Morris Animal Foundation, the largest non-profit, non-governmental source of veterinary research funding in the world.  The Foundation has funded some $100M dollars of research during the past 64 years, and currently manages more than 300 research studies specific to diseases and conditions of dogs, cats, horses and wildlife. Find out more at the Morris Animal Foundation.