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How the next Government can transform cancer research

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

28 November 2023

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With a general election on the horizon, we have spent 2023 developing a comprehensive view of the policy changes needed to improve cancer research and care. Here Emma Cattermole from our policy team talks us through the aspects of the Manifesto aimed at ensuring the UK has a thriving research environment.

Groundbreaking research by scientists and clinicians has underpinned the huge strides we’ve made across a range of cancers in recent decades. And in the face of a growing problem, a golden age of cancer research provides hope.

But to achieve further improvements, the UK must rise to the challenges facing research.

As politicians and parties prepare for the upcoming general election, we have published our Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care – setting out our vision for how the next UK Government can transform cancer research and care, so people affected by cancer can live longer, better lives.

Our Manifesto is accompanied by a detailed Programme for Government – a roadmap for the work that is needed to bring the vision to life. Here we set out our policy recommendations for improving the UK research environment, to enable you, the researchers we fund, to make better discoveries, faster.

To identify the key issues facing researchers and steps the UK Government could take to tackle them, we’ve spoken to a huge range of people from the CRUK community and beyond. From researchers and healthcare staff, to cancer patients and the public, to industry leaders and policy makers, we are enormously grateful to everyone who contributed their time and expertise.

We know that political parties see the value of UK research and want to rebuild the UK’s global position at the forefront of life sciences. We must now translate these motivations into action.

The current model for funding research in the UK is short-sighted, and we could soon fall behind.

Building a resilient and sustainable model for funding biomedical research

Research funding in the UK is a collective effort – Government, charities and industry all work together to deliver lifesaving discoveries from the bench to the bedside. However, the current model for funding research in the UK is short-sighted, and we could soon fall behind.

Charities in the UK fund more cancer research than the Government, meaning funding is heavily reliant on donations from the generous British public. These should be a top-up rather than a replacement for robust Government-funded research. We estimate that in the next decade, there will be a more than £1bn gap needed to maintain the level of government and charity cancer research funding in 2019. It is imperative that UK Government works with the sector to provide more sustainable funding for life sciences research, including a plan to close this cancer research funding gap. And in our recent polling, 74% of people agreed that the UK Government should increase its investment into cancer R&D.

This is why we’re calling for the Government to establish a commission on sustainable biomedical research funding to bring together charities, industry and public funding agencies to start a conversation to find a long-term sustainable funding model, to avoid the consequences of this gap.

We are also calling on the Government to increase investment in overall UK R&D – setting out a plan to lead the G7 in R&D intensity. The role of government investment in enabling this is vital – it catalyses industry R&D investment and boosts the economic and health benefits of cancer research.

Research in universities is also struggling. CRUK funds ground-breaking research in universities, but we can only fund the parts of research dedicated to beating cancer sooner. The Government supports these costs with the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF), included with Quality Related (QR) funding. But while charity research funding has increased since this started, Government support has not kept pace – straining universities. We’ve called on the Government to increase mainstream QR funding and the CRSF.

Making research better for researchers

The UK is a fantastic place to conduct research, with a long-standing reputation of spearheading research. Over the years, world-leading scientists and teams have chosen to come to the UK to make their discoveries – bringing with them ideas, skills and contacts for collaboration.

But by putting up a visa wall, the UK Government are risking this. We currently have one of the most expensive visa systems in the world, and this is affecting our researchers. The end of free movement means that now EU/EEA researchers must also use this system and pay high costs. This year costs increased further. The UK Government must make the immigration system more affordable and accessible, and ensure the UK is attractive and welcoming for international researchers.

We know from our recent survey on international collaboration that there are many concerns in the research community around attracting scientific talent to the UK because of administrative barriers and the costs of navigating them.

Government also needs to play their part in making UK research more accessible and rewarding to ensure everyone can enter, stay and succeed in research careers. We’re working to create a positive research culture and improve the diversity of the community of researchers we fund, but this needs change from all parts of the system. We’re calling for a government led action plan to build on the People and Culture Strategy, to ensure we reach a more inclusive, diverse research workforce.

Translating lifesaving discoveries from bench to bedside

At CRUK, we have funded discoveries that have increased our understanding of cancer and found new ways to detect and treat it. However, translating these discoveries from the lab bench to the patients bedside remains a challenge. Making improvements means strengthening the UK innovation environment at all stages of the pipeline. Medical research charities, academic institutions, small and large life science and pharmaceutical companies, regulators and the national, regional and local teams within the NHS all play significant roles.

We’re supporting researchers to turn new cancer innovations into companies, through our innovation arm Cancer Research Horizons. To better support the translation of discoveries from the lab to the clinic, Government has a role to play in ensuring there is funding available throughout the stages of translation, from spin out, to scale-up, and encourage life sciences companies to work in the UK. The UK Government should also aim to work with universities and funders to build a culture of entrepreneurship in academia.

Clinical trials bring groundbreaking scientific discoveries to patients. But our recent survey of the UK clinical research workforce found that 74% feel it’s become harder to deliver research in a timely manner in the past 18 months. The O’Shaughnessy Review demonstrated a welcome commitment from Government to improving clinical trials.

But across NHS England and Trusts, further action is needed.

From speeding up and streamlining the set up of clinical trials, to tackling the perception in the NHS that research is a ‘nice-to-have’, and addressing the lack of dedicated time healthcare professionals have to conduct research. Participation in research should also be made an option for everyone, including by decentralising aspects of research delivery to clinical studies closer to patients where appropriate.

A global approach to research

Research is an inherently global endeavour. Cancer crosses borders, so research needs a cross-border approach to beating it. Over 60% of CRUK research published in the last 5 years involved international collaboration. This is even more important for rarer cancers, as trial participants from one country alone can’t generate enough data to draw conclusions.

But international collaboration for researchers is becoming harder. While the will to collaborate continues to be strong, the new UK-EU relationship has created new barriers and the global research environment is changing. We were relieved that association with Horizon Europe was finally secured this year, reopening our scientists’ access to the collaborative opportunities it brings. The UK Government should ensure we continue to associate with these programmes, and work to minimise barriers to cross-border research.

Want to know more?

You can read more about our vision for research in the Programme for Government and see the detail of the full Manifesto, here

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be publishing reports that give more detail on some areas, including on the research workforce, and the full analysis of the clinical research survey.

How can we make this a reality?

Now it’s time for political parties to act, by committing to implementing the policies outlined in our manifesto. Join us in telling party leaders to back our calls for longer, better lives.

Look out for posts on Cancer Research UK X (Twitter) accounts on the day to share our calls.

Sign our open letter now 

The publication of our Manifesto is part of our continuing advocacy work on these issues, in the lead up to the General Election and beyond. Having examples from our researchers to share with policymakers can be powerful and demonstrate the impacts of policy decisions. If you would like to share your experiences on any of the issues discussed in this article, please contact the policy team on [email protected]


Emma Cattermole

Emma is a Policy Advisor at Cancer Research UK