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Improving the health of our economy

by Ed Yong | Analysis

8 September 2010

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Business Secretary Vince Cable has indicated a squeeze on public funding for scientific research

On 20th October the UK Government will announce how they’re going to distribute public money in the coming years. As a nation, we already know that we’re in for a rough ride. The question is how rough, and who and what are going to take the biggest hit.

While health has been given a welcome reprieve, with NHS budgets protected, science and research remain in the firing line.

In a speech today, the coalition’s Business Secretary Vince Cable has indicated a squeeze on public funding for scientific research.

But the science community is warning that this could have serious consequences and, in a major analysis piece in today’s Times, our Chief Executive Harpal Kumar tackles the issues head on.

“Scientific research makes a vital contribution to the economy, and the Government’s role in this research is crucial. At Cancer Research UK, we understand that the Government has some incredibly tough decisions to make and that cuts in the science budget next month are inevitable. However, we must all consider the long-term harm that would follow,” he writes.

We want the Government to remember that while medical research is good for health, and great for furthering scientific knowledge, it is also hugely valuable for the strength of the economy.

Quite aside from the fact that research leads to better ways to treat and prevent ill health – and a healthy workforce is a more productive one – medical research can lead to serious economic benefit, from discovering new drugs and treatments, encouraging investment from industry and charities, to improving existing techniques to make them cheaper for the NHS.

In fact, every pound that the government spends on medical research generates much more than a pound of additional private sector funding, and together they generate increased wealth for the UK.

The UK science base is one of the most productive amongst the world’s leading economies. In a recent report, the Academy of Medical Sciences outline the benefits of medical research to the UK economy (link edited from yesterday – HS).

How the Government funds research


The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), is the NHS’s research arm. It provides a vital link between the researchers and the patients. We hope that this crucial organisation is included in the Government’s commitment to the NHS.

But aside from the NHS and NIHR, the Government funds medical research through two main routes.

Firstly, Research Councils UK gives grants to individual researchers to carry out particular projects.

Secondly, ‘funding councils’ in the different UK nations support universities directly, giving them money for things like building costs, permanent salaries, and teaching. (For example, the funding council in England is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). They also judge which universities are doing the highest quality research, and fund them based on this track record.

Such funding provides a supportive environment for research. This money, often channelled to universities through the funding councils, plants the seed for further investment from charities and industry. It encourages these different partners to work together.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

The two examples below show just how important partnerships are to medical research and to improving the economy.

The Manchester Cancer Research Centre (MCRC), a multi-million pound project between Manchester University, supported by Government funding, the Paterson Institute, the Christie Foundation Hospital, and Cancer Research UK. As such, it’s a great example of how a small amount of government funding can attract extra cash from other organisations. And it’s also attracted industry – AstraZeneca has contributed £2.12m to this area. This private funding is incredibly important for a number of reasons, not least because it enables large phase III clinical trials to take place in the UK, which are simply too expensive for charities and universities to run.

In collaboration like this, each of the individual funders will have their own interests, motives and priorities. But when these these combine, it to establishes a strong national research base.

Another exciting partnership is unfolding at the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI). This centres around a strong partnership between the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, and University College London. Each partner brings significant expertise to the table that will ensure that the UKCMRI becomes a research centre of international acclaim.

The UKCMRI will encourage partnerships across a range of different subjects, such as biology, chemistry and medicine, allowing experts from these different backgrounds to work together closely. This drives research forwards, producing innovative new solutions to scientific challenges.

It is therefore crucial that these different disciplines are supported to make sure that research throughout the UK is of the highest quality, and to enable the UKCMRI project to reach its full potential.

We have put together a number of different examples, including those mentioned above, to show the Government just how much medical research can do for the economy.

The impact caused by cuts in the short term would last for a long time, and would take even longer to repair. So the UK would be likely to lose out over a sustained period, even if science funding was restored further down the line.

It takes an average of 17 years for a newly-funded research project to start benefiting patients, so solid, long-term investment is crucial to future success. This is why it is so important that the current level of funding needs to be protected as much as is possible.

The alternative is to see years of investment fall by the wayside and the health and prosperity of the UK further diminished. And ultimately, this will affect those in the future who are unfortunate enough to develop cancer.