Red tape is threatening to strangle the biomedical research community, according to 110 leading academic researchers who sent an open letter this week to Minister for Science Lord Sainsbury, calling for action to salvage Britain's international research standing. The letter argues that delays of up to 9 months to get permission to carry out research using animals is damaging the international competitiveness of U.K. biomedical research.

In the fast-paced world of biomedical research, even a few short months can make all the difference in the race to publish or patent. "Researchers using animals in the U.K. are already in a situation where overseas competitors can complete a series of experiments and be exploiting the results, before permission to start would be given in the U.K.," the letter tells Lord Sainsbury. One signatory believes that the delays are causing young scientists to abandon research. "Take a bright young Ph.D. student who has an outstanding idea. If they have it in the second year of their Ph.D., they're never going to be able to do the experiments. Someone else will do them," he says, leading to inevitable disillusionment.

But if Britain is to retain its strong pharmaceutical industry, ensuring a supply of trained people is vital. Already, "it is a problem to recruit pharmacologists with in vivo skills," according to a Pfizer spokesperson. And recruits not only lack skills, they also lack basic exposure to animal work. "We're already seeing a whittling down of our skills base in in vivo biology," agrees Clive Page, professor of pharmacology at King's College London and one of the letter's signatories. And Page is concerned that there won't be enough people around to train the next generation. "You've got to have effective academic centres with the right skills base," he says, "and its getting harder to attract people into this [field] because they can see the problems." Meanwhile the future looks bright for his current students. "I could place them several times over," he asserts, because so few people have the skills required by industry.

The researchers stress that they are not looking for a dilution of the U.K.'s current welfare standards. "I approve of the tightening up of the legislation and the fact that every person in the field has to think more than twice before embarking on any animal experiments," one of the signatories told Next Wave. And Beth Coldwell of Pfizer Ltd. says that the pharmaceutical industry welcomes the current standards, "but we need procedures to be as quick as in Europe," otherwise international companies are much more likely to put their money into research on the Continent.

Ultimately the academics are worried that in vivo research may be driven overseas entirely, to countries where the legal safeguards on animal welfare are not as stringent, to the detriment of the animals as well as U.K. science. Noting that it is often easier for researchers to travel overseas than wait for permission to do an experiment in the U.K., Page wonders, "why don't they go and live there?"