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Cancer Research UK forced to cut research funding due to COVID-19

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by Cancer Research UK | News

8 December 2020

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Due to the effects of COVID-19, Cancer Research UK has had to cut its research funding by £45 million.

This is around half of what the charity would normally expect to be spending at this time, and it means dozens of potential life-saving projects and hundreds of world-class scientists have been left unfunded.  

This devastating blow is on top of the £44 million cut made to current grants at the start of the pandemic. 

What does this mean for Cancer Research UK’s research?

The cuts equate to:
12 fewer fellowships
24 fewer research programmes
> 68 fewer projects
around 328 fewer researchers

These cuts will have long-term effects. A shrinking research portfolio will not only slow down future breakthroughs for people with cancer but could seriously reduce the chances of reaching the charity’s goal of 3 in 4 people surviving their cancer by 2034.

Due to the drop income from the pandemic, around 100 fewer grants will be funded. These grants span longer-term multi-million-pound research programmes, specific research projects, and fellowships that support scientists at all career stages – from the promising future stars to world-leading researchers at the top of their game. 

“It has a knock-on effect. People who do basic research, fundamental research, a lot of them can answer very important and exciting research questions that are not necessarily cancer research questions. So we lose these very clever researchers, who think ‘you know, there’s no funding here. I’m going to start working on a different topic.’ Will they ever come back to us?” – Professor Karen Vousden, Cancer Research UK’s Chief Scientist

Sadly, these new cuts are only the first phase of the dramatic reduction in research spending. Earlier this year, Cancer Research UK warned that steps like these might be unavoidable if the UK’s medical charities didn’t get the urgent support they needed.

Similar reductions willo be made at the next funding round in the spring unless Cancer Research UK’s income gaps are plugged by government support or more charitable giving. If nothing changes, the charity could be spending £150 million less per year by 2024, with a potential £300 million decline in fundraising income over the next 3 years. 

What’s being lost?

Much of the reduction has been in Cancer Research UK’s “response mode funding”, which makes up almost a third of our research and invites researchers to apply with their ideas for new projects, clinical trials and fellowships. 

This type of funding has  research that has transformed the way people with cancer are treated, including boosting breast cancer survival over the past 40 years through the discovery of the BRCA genes and the development of some of the most promising breast cancer drugs like herceptin.  

Some of the world’s most eminent scientists started out their careers through Cancer Research UK’s response mode funding. These include Professor Charles Swanton, who in 2003 received a junior fellowship to look at how genes interact with each other in cancer. He’s now Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician based at the Francis Crick Institute, and leads TRACERx, a multi-million pound flagship project that studies how lung cancer evolves from diagnosis to relapse. 

Through response mode funding, Cancer Research UK scientists have also pioneered the development of a class of drugs – known as PARP inhibitors – that are rapidly transforming the treatment of not just BRCA-related breast cancer, but ovarian, prostate and other types of cancer as well.  

Does that mean no new research?

Though funding has been cut, there are still new research projects being funded  with the limited money available. This means that the process has become even more competitive, with the charity’s network of world-leading experts who assess research proposals having to be even more stringent. 

“What we’re funding now is still the best. It’s just that less of the iceberg is sticking up out of the water. There’s more underneath it that we’re not funding that absolutely deserved to be funded and we are very troubled by our inability to support it. We’re still funding fabulous science. Our aim in trying to manage the reduction in funding has been to make sure that we continue to support the absolute pinnacle of our research community.” – Professor Karen Vousden

Dr Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, said that as a charity, Cancer Research UK funds around half of the UK’s publicly funded cancer research. “Medical research charities like Cancer Research UK are the life blood of research and development in the UK, and we have all felt the devastating blow of the pandemic on our income.”

Cancer Research UK, alongside the Association of Medical Research Charities and other organisations, had called for a 3-year Life Sciences – Charity Partnership Fund in the recent Government spending review, to ensure that ground-breaking research can continue while charities recover from the impact of COVID-19. 

But while the Government committed £14.6 billion for research next year, there were no clear commitments to supporting medical research charities. 

“We need urgent clarification to what measures are being put in place to support medical research charities through the Life Sciences Charity Partnership Fund,” says Foulkes. “As a country that relies so heavily on charity-funded research, the UK risks weakening its reputation as a world-leader in science if charities don’t receive the right support.” 

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said that COVID-19 has slowed down the charity efforts to beat cancer.  “We still have great ambition, are still the largest charitable funder of cancer research in the world, and will continue to fund the very best scientists in the UK and across the globe. We have always relied on the generous donations of all our supporters, but we need them now more than ever so we can continue to achieve these ambitions and so that together, we can still beat cancer.”