Working with the industry can help produce impact from research results.

Interview with Anna Valros, Professor, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
Department of Production Animal Medicine & Research Center for Animal Welfare

Anna’s expertise is in the field of animal welfare. She mainly works with pigs and poultry.  Her studies typically look at the interaction between the housing, environment or handling of animals, and their welfare level. This involves behavioral and physiological measurements taken from animals on, for example, farms and at slaughterhouses. The main aim of her research is to identify challenges in animal welfare and help find solutions that benefit animals as well as are feasible for the industry.

What is your experience with business collaboration?

“I have good connections with the pig industry. I mostly work together with farmers, slaughter houses and feeding companies. Some of these have provided funding for our research and others have purchased research from us. We also get provided with materials for our studies, for instance experimental feeds, or access to animals.  In other cases, our collaborations have focused on studies related to pain, together with pharmaceutical companies. These firms have, for example, supported the project by providing us with pain alleviating compounds for our research.”

What type of collaborative projects have you worked on?

“We often set-up our laboratories on farms. Farms give us access to the facilities and animals. They allow us to run our experiments and collect the resulting data. We get feedback from the farmers and ask about their practices.  We can then evaluate possible ways of ameliorating animal welfare through improving housing or management.”

Anna’s collaborations have sometimes been initiated from a specific question or need that companies wish to answer, she explains, “We had one project in which a company hired us to research the transportation of turkeys when it comes to animal welfare. Animal welfare can be important for a company’s public image. The firm wanted to know whether they could grow larger turkeys without having to change to bigger transport cages. They asked us to evaluate the effect the cages would have on the larger animals. We conducted the study and concluded that there would be a negative impact on the welfare of the turkeys, and the company did take our advice seriously. ”

“Collaborations can arise from a specific question or need that companies wish to answer. “

 Why do you do business collaboration?

“My research requires access to animals and farms. We do not have experimental farms for pigs and poultry at the University and therefore it is impossible to conduct our research without industry partners. It is also important for us to work with farms to get feedback for our experimental plans and whether these mimic the real-life scenarios. This makes our studies more applied and helps us achieve impact through our research results.”

 How do you find your industry partners?

“More or less everyone working in the animal product industry in Finland knows each other so it’s easy to identify potential partners. However, when looking for a collaborator I usually go back to my existing network. I tend to contact the people I know. It is easier to work with a partner that you have already collaborated with as they understand what research is about and how it works.”

“It is usually easier to work with a partner that you have already collaborated with as they understand what we do and already know how to work together with us.”

 What challenges do you experience when collaborating with the industry? 

“The biggest challenge for us is to find motivated farmers that would be willing to take part in our studies. Farmers are generally under high pressure and work long hours. It can be difficult to get them interested in utilizing their own time for our research.  It also takes time to build an understanding of how research works. Maintaining scientific integrity and right to publish are crucial aspects in research-business collaboration. You have to carefully go through with partners how things will be done in the study plan and how the results will be utilized. These matters need to be agreed on prior to the start of the study as they can be sensitive issues.”

“Maintaining scientific integrity and right to publish are crucial aspects in business collaboration.”

 Have these collaborations resulted in any impact for society?

“My research has impact on animal welfare. However, I would also like to think that my work has changed attitudes on the industry side and that our studies can provide benefit to both animals and companies. For example, we had one study that looked at enrichment objects for pigs. These are objects used to provide farm pigs with something to do. The aim of the study was to identify cheap and good objects for pigs to fulfil their need to explore and chew with. We tested different types of objects and ended up concluding that fresh wood from for example birch tress was the best option. This is cheap, it’s readily available on many farms and improves the welfare of the animals. We therefore found a simple and easy solution which benefited both animals and farmers. After that study was published, wood logs started being regularly used on many farms.”

“Our studies can provide benefit to both animals and companies.”

Anna continues, “I also work with tail biting pigs. When stressed, pigs tend to bite each other’s tails. To solve this issue, their tails are cut off. This practice is not legal in Finland but is still widely practiced in other parts of EU, and the rest of the world. We therefore were interested to find out how do Finnish farmers deal with the issue and see whether the same practices might successfully be used abroad as an alternative to tail cutting. We sent a survey to Finnish farmers to find out how do they handle long-tailed pigs. The study gained a lot of international attention, and I was invited to talk about the issue abroad.”

 Do you have any tips for other researchers when it comes to business collaboration?

“You have to build trust and understanding with the industry. This is extremely important when you want to sell your research idea to a potential partner. Open communication and discussing with honesty is very important. Additionally, you should never underestimate the knowledge the industry has and to what extent they can contribute to your research.”

“Building trust and understanding are extremely important when you want to sell your research idea to a potential partner.”

What do you think could be further improved or developed at your faculty in order to support business collaboration?

“It would be beneficial to build long term lasting relationships with the industry when it comes to scientific projects. Currently our projects tend to be short collaborations that last only a few years, or less.” Anna continues, “I think we could also make use of more training and advice when it comes to business collaboration. For example, we could use assistance with how to deal with the publication of research results, how to work together without risking the science and how to communicate with companies when it comes to sensitive matters.”