Examining physiology as a global discipline


by Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is currently playing host to the 38th Congress of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS), which is a global network of physiological societies. Released at this event is the report Physiology – Current Trends and Future Challenges. This is a collaboration between the IUPS and The Physiological Society looking at the discipline of physiology and the state it is found in around the world. Physiologists and students of the subject have different experiences and face different challenges depending on their local environment in terms of funding, regulation, job opportunities, public attitude, and any number of other variables.

IUPS sought input from its member organisations, receiving 27 contributions, the content of which make up the data underpinning the report. These responses covered all six inhabited continents, and physiological societies large and small. Most were proud to describe the accomplishments in their country, but many set these against a background of declining government funding for research and greater difficulty in training for in vivo skills and conducting animal-based experimentation. One of the few exceptions is the UK, where the government has pledged to increase research funding over the coming years, although there are concerns around the impact of Brexit on international collaboration.

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Responses about the teaching of physiology varied widely; in some countries the discipline is not taught as an individual undergraduate subject, but others have a number of routes into physiology. It is covered in medical, veterinary, dental and nursing courses, and a number of countries are beginning to highlight the clinical relevance of physiological knowledge.

The general public in some countries can feel very far-removed from scientific research, which affects the perception when governments spend money on science. It is crucial to cement the link in people’s minds between research and health, prosperity, and being able to go about daily life. Many people are aware of pressing problems such as climate change, pollution, and ageing unhealthy populations, but do not necessarily support basic research when they cannot be told a direct application. It is hoped that societies will be able to share knowledge on how best to shore up support for basic research.

The survey also considered the career prospects of new graduates. Globally, physiologists have good opportunities in academic positions as post-doctoral fellows, research associates in research laboratories, and as faculty members. However, the academic sector does not produce enough opportunities to have a position for each graduate. Other professional opportunities are being sought by new PhDs as the struggle to obtain research funding support is very onerous. Career opportunities for physiologists in non-academic institutions appear to be good in several countries, be they related to science or more general graduate careers such as finance.

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The report compiled responses from 27 countries

An exercise such as this survey is not merely to take stock of the state physiology is found in, but to offer a route towards improving it. The report offers recommendations for member societies to work with IUPS and create programmes in their own countries. Due to differing situations it is not envisaged that these will be universally and identically implemented, but the IUPS is creating new Regional Representatives to work closely with individual societies to drive effective development.

While no organisation is yet in the optimum state for driving forward international physiology, there is hope in the future. This report is the first step in a unifying and momentum-raising process to bolster physiology worldwide and achieve its universal recognition as a vital and robust discipline.

Download the report here.

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