Funders focus on lack of microbiology skills

Posted on March 7, 2014   by William Burns

In the latest House of Commons Select Committee hearing on antimicrobial resistance, research funders highlighted a lack of skilled microbiologists as a major factor holding back the UK’s efforts to fight antibiotic resistance and cut the burden of infectious disease.


Speaking to MPs on 26 February, Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said: ‘There is great concern over the lack of academics who work on bacteria, whether they are labelled medical microbiologists or even infectious disease experts. It is not simply a throw-money-at-it problem, because to train people you have to find the right environment in which to train them and there are now very few that offer that.’

He added that, ‘Much of the trick will be to interest people who currently hold a slightly different card in their academic life, and draw them into this important issue.’

Professor Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: ‘If you look back to what the MRC funded in the 1950s around TB, there is no doubt that at that stage Britain was leading the world in the combination of microbiology, infectious diseases and TB in particular, and in pharmacology.

‘Over the last 20 to 30 years, those disciplines within our universities, pharmacology in particular, have become less than they were.’

Professor Farrar linked the skills shortage to the dearth of corporate R&D on infectious disease, saying that both problems had to be tackled together.

Speaking during a second session that looked at ways to incentivise antimicrobial R&D in Big Pharma, James Anderson, European Partnerships Manager for GlaxoSmithKine, called for clear political leadership on antimicrobial resistance from the Prime Minister. He cited a similar intervention from Barack Obama that he said galvanised efforts in the USA.

‘The President’s committee of scientific advisers is doing a project on it right now, and there is a personal interest from the President. He mentioned this problem during his State of the Union address last month. If we could have that step of progress here, in terms of David Cameron talking about it, we would see it as being a very positive step.’

The next Commons hearing on antimicrobial resistance is set for 12 March. MPs will investigate government action, with the Ministers and leading civil servants under scrutiny.

Commons Select Committees aim to hold government to account on vital policy issues. Members of the public can watch online or attend in person.

You can read the full transcript of the event here.