Medical research charities are a significant underexploited research asset to the UK

Posted on March 15, 2011 by

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I have just been at the launch of a great report by NESTA looking at the UK biomedical community and how everyone involved – industry, research councils, the NHS, universities and charities – collaborate. It takes a snapshot of what’s working and what needs improving to make it all work better. There are some great facts and figures and a nice table showing how the UK biomedical industry works together and the report concludes that medical research charities are one of the significant assets the UK has which could be better exploited to support UK biomedical research. All nice and timely stuff ahead of the budget next week and as the government’s growth strategy develops.

Background

NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is set up to explore how to make the UK more innovative. As part of this, they’ve been looking at UK biomedical industry as an area with the potential to be more innovative through better collaborations etc.

Looking at better collaboration is really interesting to us – AMRC conducted a project last year, Ways and Means, where we took a snapshot of all the collaborations going on at one time among a group of our member medical research charities and explored what was and wasn’t working, how they’d approached these collaborations, the benefits and the barriers. We produced a really interesting map illustrating how everyone was working together.

What does it say?

All together now: Improving cross-sector collaboration in the UK biomedical industry kicks off by taking a snapshot of UK biomedical science at the moment, identifying the key players and what is working. On page 12 there’s a great map of the UK biomedical research system showing how much money was going where in 2008/09 – you can see where medical research charities fit in the picture.

On the state of the UK sector just now, the report concludes that:

there are significant assets that differentiate the UK, and which could be better exploited to support the industry

Medical research charities are identified as one of these underexploited research assets alongside the NHS (which should make research a central goal not a peripheral activity), the research excellence we have in our universities (which we are not necessarily using and successfully interacting with industry) and large and small pharmaceutical companies.

There’s a nice section on page 10 with some facts and figures on medical research charity contribution to the sector including the interesting fact that charities are the major funders of clinical medicine research in universities:

[Clinical medicine research in universities is] funded 46 per cent by charities, 41 per cent by government or research councils and 9 per cent by industry.

and the sectors potential.

The report is full of interesting facts about the benefits of collaboration.

  • those collaborating with external partners are more likely to produce “new to market” innovations (page 15)
  • they found that collaborative research (academic-corporate) has greater impact based on number of citations internationally (page16/17)

But found some worrying trends

  • industry-funded research in universities has been falling relative to government and charity funding. This bucks the international trend where pharma R&D spending has been increasing. (page 20)
  • the share of global patients enrolled in clinical trials in the UK is going down – this is bad for basing clinical trials in the UK (there are some tables and numbers on page 26)

The report makes a series of recommendations for how collaboration can be improved – including lots of case studies of projects that are working (page 29-42)

  • building the right infrastructure – networks, facilities etc
  • ensuring electronic patient records can be used for medical research (there’s a nice factbox here about how this is successfully being achieved in Scotland – page 31)
  • improving the sharing of resources and services between institutions
  • making changes to VAT rules so collaborating doesn’t result in a bigger VAT bill for those involved.
  • support the movement of people – the report recognises the value of people in bringing different but complementary knowledge together to solve problems and come up with the ground-breaking innovations. It looks at what can facilitate this including placements, better-structured careers allowing flexibility, building clusters where people are located together and creating organisations where applied work and collaboration are valued.
  • It also makes some recommendations about the processes that will help get collaborations off the ground; using standard processes, clear approaches to pricing etc. This fits rather nicely with the new mICRA (model Industry Collaborative Research Agreement) which the government launched in February to help pharmaceutical and biomedical industries, charities, universities and the the NHS work together (more background on this in my previous post here)

And there’s a really great observation in the conclusion (page 43) about the value of collaboration

Innovation is the process of collaboration between people who often belong to different social systems…. ….The diversity of perspectives and organisational systems is vital to innovation – if everyone worked int he same way, these collaborations would be much less valuable.

What next?

The report identifies some areas where more data would be really useful to help us work out how we can improve collaboration. Including gathering more information on impact – the MRC e-Val system which keeps track of the outcomes and impact of all the research they have funded might be interesting here (see my previous post for more background) and more information and data on scientific career paths and how scientists move about.

And this is all really interesting just now because the government is focused on developing a successful growth strategy for the UK and the UK biosciences industry is one of the six key areas they are focused on (see my previous post about the launch of the growth review back in November here) and we are expecting more information on their growth strategy to be published alongside the budget next week, 23 March.

Posted in: Policy