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Medical research – a recipe for success

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

20 April 2011

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Chocolate cake

Will government cuts take a bite out of charity research?

As the Office for Health Economics publishes its report on the interdependency between charity and public medical research, our policy researcher Harriet Teare reflects on whether we should take a leaf out of Heston Blumenthal’s cook book to find the perfect recipe for research.

Last year charities invested over £1bn in medical research in the UK. This investment, unrivalled elsewhere in the world, adds to a rich mix of public and private investment which underlies the UK’s international reputation for world-class research.

Much like baking the perfect cake, building the best funding environment is dependent on having the right mix of ingredients. Replace sugar with more flour, fat or eggs and your Victoria Sponge is no more than a humble pancake.

And the same is true of research funders, says the Office for Health Economics in its report today. Reduce or remove public funding and you’ll have more of an impact than you might have bargained for.


In October 2010 the Government announced its plans for the spending review. In the lead up to this, the science community were nervous about the fate of science research, given the Government’s previous commitments to cutting public spending.

If the Government cut funding to science many people felt that this would be a disaster for UK research (as we wrote at the time).

As it happened, science got off fairly lightly in the Spending Review, with the science-budget frozen at £4.6 bn. Although this means a real-term cut over 4 years, as inflation rises, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

But it did get us thinking.

If the Government reduced its funding for biomedical research what would this mean for other funders? Could we fill the gap?

So we worked with the Office for Health Economics to get some answers to these questions.

The findings

By talking to lots of different people involved in biomedical research, the report made some interesting observations.

These included:

  • That when charities and the Government both support science, this helps the economy.
  • That public funding helps charities to raise money by showing that the Government has faith in research these funds are supporting.
  • That UK healthcare would suffer if one of these partners was to cut their contribution.

As the report points out, ‘From a funder perspective, the key advantages of co-funding partnerships are both financial and qualitative.’

The significant financial benefits to having several different sectors supporting research is that different funders are able to share costs. They also share the risk of not knowing whether research is going to work. This helps to provide long-term stability to science. It gives researchers confidence that when they start a project, there will still be funding for it a few years down the line. This is particularly important because medical research can take a very long time.

As well as financial benefits, there is also the opportunity to share knowledge and skills amongst the different funders. And by ensuring a bit of competition, it means everyone has to work to a higher standard, which raises the quality of UK science.

If charities had to pay for all the different facilities that are needed to support science, they wouldn’t be able to carry out nearly as much of the actual research. With Government providing funding for research facilities (universities for example), the labs are already in place. It means that the money generously donated to charity can be stretched much further, so that more life-saving research can be achieved.

The report showed that ‘government funding for research acts as a ‘quality signal’ for public institutions or charities’, showing that research is worth funding.

In addition to this, there is evidence from the US that if the Government spends money on research, it encourages companies to invest in it as well. This means there is more money available for UK Science. It also means that if Government took that funding away, the companies might be put off investing in the UK and go elsewhere instead.

To sum up, charity and government funding works really well together to support medical research. This would be jeopardised if the Government was to cut funding. By working together to support research, charities and the Government are helping to improve UK healthcare. The fact that this partnership also helps the economy is the icing on the cake.

This report adds weight to the Government’s Spending Review commitments to invest in science. And, crucially, it gives an important warning of how future cuts could have a big impact on the delicate balance between the different funding streams of UK research.

This report makes it absolutely clear: the Government must continue to protect science funding in the future – so that the UK can have its scientific cake AND eat it.


Image from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons