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Science is the key to fixing the UK’s flagging economy – it should be a priority in this election

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK
by Michelle Mitchell | Opinion

30 January 2024

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Two cancer researchers looking at a cell image on screen


In 1963, Harold Wilson spoke of the “white heat” of a scientific revolution which would change the face of Britain. It expressed an ideal of a Britain where science and technology would challenge old orthodoxies and change how we do things for the better.

Sixty-one years on from that famous speech, the UK badly needs to back science and innovation. The country faces the prospect of stagnant growth and productivity, and we need to improve health outcomes by harnessing the opportunities of the revolution in technology.

Science and innovation have delivered big wins for decades. Thanks to advances in prevention, diagnosis and treatment, cancer survival has doubled in the past 50 years. Cancer Research UK estimates that one million lives have been saved since the mid-1980s thanks to research. Screening programmes have saved lives. We have newer treatment options like immunotherapy, and we’re even finding new and better ways to use existing treatments.

But here’s the problem. The UK has world-leading cancer scientists, yet world-lagging cancer outcomes. We’re in a golden age of cancer research, with ever more exciting discoveries, yet the NHS is too slow to innovate and get promising new treatments to patients. Cancer survival is improving – but the last decade saw the smallest increase in survival of the past 50 years.

Now for the hard part – the UK doesn’t spend enough on science compared to its international counterparts. We’re behind other G7 countries in the proportion of GDP we spend on research. In some areas like cancer research, the challenge is more pronounced because the burden of spending falls predominantly on the private and third sectors, while other G7 countries like the US provide substantial government funding.

But it’s worth it – not just for the UK’s health, but its bank balance too. Cancer Research UK analysis reveals that every £1 spent on research generates £2.80 for the economy – in revenue, jobs, and other benefits from improvements in health.

Labour’s Life Science Plan, published earlier today, outlines several important commitments. It’s right to identify big challenges in the delivery of clinical trials in the UK. There was strong recognition of this in the O’Shaughnessy Review commissioned by the UK Government. Streamlining the processes for setting up clinical trials in the UK is an essential step towards regaining the UK’s international reputation for research.

But what both Labour’s Plan and the UK Government’s response to the O’Shaughnessy Review lack on clinical trials is a plan to ensure staff can dedicate sufficient time for them within the NHS. There is a nod to long-term workforce planning, which is crucial to addressing chronic staff shortages within cancer services, but we must see more time set aside for research within staff contracts now. Making time for research creates a virtuous circle. Staff get involved in research, which makes them more likely to continue their careers within the NHS, ensuring patients can get the best care – which can be on clinical trials.

On research funding, Labour’s Plan contains a welcome commitment to longer-term funding arrangements for research institutions. This is very positive on the back of Horizon Europe association, delivered late last year by the government, and will give researchers the funding stability they need to deliver life-saving research. But funding stability alone is not enough, and we need to see that commitment translate into a meaningful increase in the contribution government makes to cancer research in the UK – where we lag far behind countries like the US.

In Longer better lives: a manifesto for cancer research and care, we urged political parties to commit to sustainable and long-term funding for research. Within the first 100 days after the election, we need a plan to lead the G7 in research intensity, in line with Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge for the UK to “deliver the highest sustained growth in the G7”. We need a continuing commitment to Horizon Europe and its successor funding programmes. We need to close the more than £1 billion funding gap for cancer research over the next decade.

The next government must secure the future for research in UK universities. And they must reduce barriers for the best and brightest researchers to study and work in the UK, including reducing visa costs and simplifying the visa regime.

In the General Election, science and innovation will be at the heart of solving many of the country’s challenges. The political party that gets serious about science and innovation is the party that will change the UK for the better and the general public will support and reward them at the ballot box.

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