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Ian Lugton, District Veterinarian, SELHPA, Bega and Greg Curran, Veterinary Officer, DPI, Broken Hill

Posted Flock & Herd April 2013


As District Veterinarians you will always be in the best position to do something significant, a research project perhaps, that someone else can't easily do or would find more difficult to achieve. All good research starts with field observations, which puts field veterinarians in the box seat. You, are the 'Johnny on the spot', who may be able to put more time into an issue than the local practitioners, or someone further away for whom travel would be a handicap. Field research will be professionally stimulating, get you onto farms and provide local benefits. The associated professional development could potentially lead you to other avenues of endeavour and make a substantial contribution to livestock health in general.

What we have written in the paragraphs below are a few tips and ideas that you might find helpful, or stimulate you to become involved in the farming and scientific community in this way.


Apply yourself to critically examine locally important issues and think about where some effort may achieve rewards for the industry - back a winner. "Nothing comes of nothing", but if you are to achieve anything but disappointment, select a project which is not too large or overwhelming. If progress is made in a pilot study, this can be built upon later.

You must be disciplined, persistent and logical in your approach. This applies to reviewing the literature, the research and the reporting and extension. If you are not prepared to put in the effort over the longer term, don't bother to start.

Make an effort to network with recognised experts in the field of interest. Capitalise on our strengths, such as access to on-farm trial sites and producer contacts and exposure to real life problems. Don't dwell on our weaknesses, such as lack of financial resources, our time, laboratory expertise, testing facilities and lack of specialist skills/knowledge. Where there is a will to make it happen, these problems can be overcome. Recognize which parts of an investigation are best done by you and which are best delegated. You are well placed to identify the problem, undertake the epidemiology (incidence, distribution, relationships between the animal, its environment, management and the disease complex) and to develop a hypothesis about the cause or causes of the problem. Set up the question or questions that you, and people working with you, can and must answer. Pathology studies are best done with competent laboratories and research organisations.

To add value to your work, try to establish good relationships with universities, DPI and chemical companies. Sometimes it can be useful to get involved in someone else's project, for example by doing the field work for a large project in your region. This could involve collaboration with companies, government agencies and universities. University staff have a keen interest in publication, so their trials are carried right through to publication.

If farmers are interested in your project, you may be able to test possible prevention or control methods on farm. Clearly, experimental design will be important to ensure the greatest chance of uncovering a significant result at the end of the trial. Adequate animal numbers and appropriate control groups are essential here, and certain variables and factors must be either controlled or dealt with in statistical analyses. Remember that chronic problems are usually multi-factorial, so one needs to examine both predisposing and precipitating factors and to incorporate these into the trial design.

Maintaining currency in your knowledge is important. Textbooks, conferences and talking with experienced colleagues were once our means of staying up-to-date with the latest developments. However, with knowledge about livestock diseases and management exploding, particularly in developing countries with climates and livestock more like ours than Europe and North America, we need to use the internet to inform ourselves. LHPA's 'Flock and Herd' website is one important local example.

Accessing journals on-line is another essential step in ongoing professional development. These journals allow you to look back over time at the best minds and their work; to see what's new; to draw together the best advice for our livestock owners; and to see what additional research is needed to plug knowledge gaps. All DPI and LHPA veterinarians need to have ready access to on-line journals.

Read widely, speak to experts to gain an understanding of the status quo and why people currently think or behave the way they do in relation to your issue of interest. Start with as much information as you can gather before formulating the question to investigate. Be prepared to go outside the traditional boundaries of your discipline and your comfort zone - this will bring rewards.

As well as the professional information streams, listen to farmers (and their wives) and other non-scientists. This is best done in person, as farmers are too busy to cope with more forms at the end of their day. Their observations are often very valuable, and they have little to gain by telling lies. However, farmer interpretation of observations may not be especially sound or show good judgement. It is documenting their observations, followed by logical interpretation that is important.

One essential skill of any veterinary scientist is being able to critically evaluate what one reads or hears. Currently we are expected to accept that "Everyone is entitled to their opinion" regardless of the validity of that opinion. The ironic response heard these days to the statement "The other day I read ..." is "Well, it must be true" is a challenge for our profession. Gone are the days that the word of any "expert", including us, is accepted unconsidered.

When examining the literature, look for flaws, inconsistencies, gaps in knowledge, illogicalities etc. We've been told that graduates are now trained in these skills. However, we weren't, until formally trained in epidemiology which included a course in critical assessment of the literature. Journal articles aren't necessarily perfect, and were sometimes wrong. However, once recognised these deficiencies can be allowed for. Every article has something to offer. We just need to find that 'something' in whatever we read. That advice is useful when applied to what is heard as well. Critical evaluation skills are best learned formally, and not left to the vagaries of informally coming to one's opinion. Being a natural sceptic can be of assistance in this regard. Each of us needs to be sure we have the necessary critical assessment skills.

Don't be afraid to challenge the status quo, or significant progress will not be made. There is a saying within the scientific community, that the true mark of the eminence of a person in their field, is for how long they can delay real progress. Current paradigms and systems have inertia because of the investment within them. They cannot be overturned easily, nor without rancour. Putting this more simply, if you come up with a view that is at variance to what is currently accepted, you need to be brave and prepared to weather the storm. Patience, persistence and a belief in yourself are required virtues.

Once a hypothesis has been developed, be prepared to tackle the problem in stages. Each stage being an answerable question which is designed to give a useful result, even if it doesn't support the hypothesis. Ideally, each successive stage should confirm or develop the result of the previous stage; this provides the confidence to publish or extend the findings. Allow your thought processes to remain flexible and be prepared to modify your views if the data you generate, or other work, does not support your hypothesis.

To better direct your efforts and to assist in developing clear thought processes, some understanding of causal association is required. We are all aware of how Koch's postulates are used to decide that a living organism causes a disease. These were first published in 1876 to assess the evidence that Bacillus anthracis caused anthrax. Robert Koch's postulates are summarised below:

When the medical fraternity came to examine the health effects of smoking tobacco, Koch's postulates were found wanting. In 1964, Austin Bradford Hill put forward a new set of criteria that were used to assess the evidence that smoking, a non-infectious agent and a behaviour, led to lung cancer and vascular disease.

The Bradford Hill postulates can be set out as a series of assessments and judgements about veterinary decisions relating to causality that we use and make each day. These postulates are set out below:

Note that only one of these postulates requires statistics (strength of association). However, all require reason, logic and professional judgement.


Veterinary Science underpins all we do to improve the health and well-being of the animals of the people we work with: clinical examination, disease investigation and diagnosis, treatment and prevention. We know much about the problems that confront owners of livestock, but there is much to be learnt, particularly in their and our changing world, as new diseases emerge and we come to grips with the sheer complexity of many diseases or problems. District veterinarians are well-placed to build on that store of knowledge through proper research into what still remains unknown.


  1. We wish to acknowledge the valuable contributions to this paper by Dr Susan McClure, former Research Veterinarian at Dubbo with Central West LHPA


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