LETTER: Britain's neglect of a vital science

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The Independent Online
From Professor A. T. Florence

Sir: Roger Dobson's article ("Try a little flower power", 23 May) on the pharmaceutical comeback of plants was timely. In spite of the long history of the derivation of medicinal agents from plants, interest in the pharmaceutical industry in screening plant extracts for biological activity and lead compounds, and the growing public interest in the safe use of herbal medicines, funding for this vital area of research has not been forthcoming in the UK.

Not here the "record levels of funding" that you cite elsewhere (" 'Foresight' fund to help appliance of science", 23 May). The Department of Pharmacognosy which was quoted in the article as being active in research into plants as sources of medicines is actually located in the School of Pharmacy of the University of London and is the last academic department with that title in the country. However the school, a top-rated research institution, has for the past two years received the lowest possible funding increase from the Higher Education Funding Council.

So the school is faced with the possibility that pharmacognosy will have to close, thus leaving the UK without an academic department devoted to the subject. This at a time of great potential and also at a time of great urgency, as the world's plant resource is being destroyed as the rainforests disappear. Research councils still seem more inclined to fund the activities of chemists who attempt to synthesise the often complex and challenging molecules that come from plants, rather than the primary quest for the isolation and identification of these drugs. It is time for change, or else Britain will once again lose out.

Yours sincerely,



School of Pharmacy,

University of London

London, WC1