Skip to main content

Together we are beating cancer

Donate now
  • Science & Technology
  • Policy & Insight

Why H.M. Treasury (and all of us) can’t ignore a looming £1 billion research funding gap

Headshot of Owen Jackson
by Owen Jackson | Opinion

18 January 2024

0 comments 0 comments

Cancer Research UK scientists working in a lab at the Francis Crick Institute
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London. © Jane Stockdale for Cancer Research UK


In over a decade working in the Civil Service, I learned that getting the Treasury to listen to why your policy area needed investment was not easy.

In departments covering policies as varied as science and research, defence sales, business and trade, Northern Ireland, national security and international crisis response, I regularly heard the advice:

“The Chancellor won’t get out of bed for less than a billion pounds”

The message being, while what you do might be important, it is a rounding error to HM Treasury.

Well, someone at 1 Horse Guards Road had better get the porridge on the stove and the coffee brewing!

In Longer, Better Lives: A Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care, our charity has identified a major challenge in the way cancer research is funded in the UK.

We reveal that there will be a £1bn funding gap in research and development, which we’ve identified will happen over the next decade in funding cancer research in the UK.

We want to work with the post-election Government to determine how we can avoid this major financial pitfall.

We can’t ignore this £1 billion blackhole and hope it will go away.

Cancer is unique. Nearly one in two of us will get cancer, meaning virtually every one of us will be directly affected by it.

Different cancer types combined add up to make it the UK’s biggest killer.

Survival has doubled since the 1970s, and in the last decade alone, cancer mortality has fallen more than 10%, fuelled by research into better and kinder treatments, earlier diagnosis and the incredible hard work of NHS staff.

This is huge progress. But because our population is getting older, cancer cases will sadly continue to increase in real terms.

Today, we see around 420,000 new cancer cases in the UK each year. By 2040, unless we act to prevent more cases, detect them earlier and treat them more effectively, we may see more than 500,000 cases each year.

But the UK is unusual in how it funds cancer research, when you compare it to similar countries around the world.

We know that industry and pharmaceutical firms privately invest very significant amounts into R&D in the UK, but they do not publish detailed breakdowns of this spending. And who provides the lion’s share of public research funding? Charities, like Cancer Research UK who can trace its existence back over 100 years.

The US government spends five times as much per citizen on cancer research from the public purse than does the UK Government. The existence of research charities, therefore, can lead government to conclude there is less of a need to invest in research.

The challenge is, many of the UK’s research charities raise their money through the generous donations of members of the public, who run to raise money, shop at our stores, donate and gift in incredible numbers.

At a time when families are feeling the squeeze of a cost-of-living crisis, research charities are also faced with increasing costs because of high inflation such as higher energy costs to run high-tech labs and higher salaries for world-leading scientists and researchers.

For cancer research, that “inflationary pressure” means that, over the next decade, a £1bn gap will open up if we want to maintain the current level of research spending in real terms.

A graph showing cancer research funding sustainability

And the gap is more like £2bn, if we factored in the increasing number of cases because of our aging population, and if the UK wanted to maintain the current amount of public research spending per cancer case.

Not all this money may need to come from government. Other countries have found different ways to fund groundbreaking research. Australia, for instance, has a Medical Research Future Fund which invests taxpayers’ money, and uses the interest this generates to fund cancer research.

The Covid pandemic shines a spotlight on how we can overcome big national research and development funding challenges.

When I was the head of policy for the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, I was fortunate enough to work with members of the Covid Vaccines Taskforce in the development of the 100 Days Mission, which is working across the G7 to halve the time in the next pandemic to get vaccines into the clinic.

The success of the vaccine programme, and the subsequent industry investment in pharmaceutical and bioprocessing facilities in the UK, shows that when government takes a direct interest in research and development in a critical area, it can attract investment from others too – whether industry, philanthropists or other research funders.

We want to work with government and those other funders to find new ways to fill the growing gap in the UK’s cancer research funding landscape.

We want to build a new, more sustainable model for funding research into the biggest cause of death in the UK.

Wake up Chancellor – opportunity awaits.

Headshot of Owen Jackson, CRUK's director of policy

Owen Jackson

Owen Jackson is Cancer Research UK’s director of policy.