What health researchers want to see in the government’s research and innovation strategy

Posted on September 14, 2011 by

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Cancer Research UK has looked at what we need to support world-class health research in the UK and made recommendations to government on how to achieve this. This is good timing as the government is developing a research and innovation strategy and will be publishing a further instalment of the ‘Plan for Growth’ in the autumn so these recommendations should inform their thinking.

Background

Back in autumn 2010, the government conducted a spending review. The science budget was frozen. This outcome was welcomed across the science community although there are ongoing concerns at the impact of what is, thanks to inflation, a real terms cut in spending on science. (the Commons Science & Technology Committee has been following the impact of this spending review on sciencethe Campaign for Science and Engineering’s evidence to the committee is a good summary of the concerns)

Health research and the life sciences was identified as one of six growth areas in the plan for growth published alongside the 2011 Budget. Government committed to various measures to support this sector including steps to streamline the regulation of health research and establish a single health research authority.

In the recent white paper on higher education Students at the Heart of the System, government announced that they plan to publish their strategy for research and innovation “later this year”

What does the report say?

Building the ideal environment for medical research is short, clear and very well evidenced so a summary can’t do it justice, but I’ve nipped through the recommendations and pulled together some extra interesting bits and further information below.

It kicks off by identifying the key components of a research environment

  • the people conducting the research
  • the idea behind the project and the process of carrying this out
  • the place within which this research is conducted.

and the themes that need to be supported to ensure high quality and productive research

  • funding
  • infrastucture
  • opportunities for collaboration
  • investment in good people
  • supportive regulation and governance

The report makes recommendations in each of these areas:

Funding

  • UK governments should maintain the diversity of funding streams including funding to research councils, funding councils and National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) funding. They should also continue to demonstrate long-term commitment to supportive funding (such as the charitable support element of QR funding) that enables charities to fund world class research in universities and the NHS.

The charitable support element of QR funding is often referred to as the “Charity Research Support Fund”. This funding enables charities to fund research in higher education institutions by meeting the indirect costs of the research , such as maintaining general university infrastructure, which falls outside charitable objectives, so cannot be covered by charities. (more background here) Government has committed to the charity support element of QR funding continuing throughout the spending review period.

  • UK governments should better advertise opportunities for accessing EU funding, encouraging researchers to engage with all available funding mechanisms.

The EU has distributed money to research across Europe through the Framework Programme (we have had seven frameworks) and UK research hasn’t done badly in accessing this funding – but it is pretty confusing.  The EU are now in the process of changing how they fund research – they held a consultation earlier this year which the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills fed into and are due to publish details of the news system by the end of 2011.

Infrastucture

  • UK governments should set a strategic vision for the different funding streams designed to support infrastructure, to reassure researchers and investors of their long-term support.

Infrastructure is the physical, organisational and technical support that a research laboratory needs.

  • UK governments should develop an infrastructure strategy to enable access to, and sharing of, research data.

We collect masses of data, for example, every NHS patient has a data record which offers a huge resource for health research, but there are difficulties in creating safe and secure systems which could allow this data to be shared. When research projects are conducted, it is not always possible to share data collected beyond the original research team to support other research.

Recognising this, a group of major international funders of public health research recently committed to work together to increase the availability of data emerging from their funded research, in order to accelerate advances in public health.

The next step of the Plan for Growth (out this autumn) is expected to explore the management of information and data and how this can be better managed and exploited.

Opportunities for collaboration

  • Funding bodies and research institutions from across the private, public and charity sectors should share best practice on collaborative working.
  • Assessment of the quality of research must be accommodating of multi-disciplinary projects. The Research Excellence Framework panels should include appropriate expertise to faithfully assess the quality of collaborative research.

A lot of research is funded through collaborations between different funders – the diverse partnership of different funders is a key part of the UK’s health research landscape. Different partners can bring different things to a research project – for example, charities focused on one condition often have a wealth of expertise and strong links with patients.

We actually took a snapshot of “who is working with who” last year, producing this amazing map showing all the connections and collaborations. We explored the factors that influence decisions to collaborate, the pitfalls and the benefits – including the ability to increase the pot of money, reach new researchers, and leverage the skills and expertise that partners bring.

MRC emerged as a hub, facilitating lots of these collaborations. For example MRC works with lots of different medical research charities to offer joint fellowships.

Investment in good people

  • The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in England will need to monitor the impact of reforms to university funding to the uptake of STEM courses to ensure that the supply of future scientists is not unduly disrupted.

The priority for medical research charities is to fund the highest quality research to improve health and help patients. Charities need skilled researchers to fund and invest in individuals, giving them the opportunity to develop skills (more information on how they do this and how much money the invest in this here).

With lots of changes to university funding it is important to keep a close eye on the impact for those studying science.

  • UK governments should ensure that immigration policy is supportive of UK science and enables recruitment of the brightest and best scientists from all over the world.

The coalition government committed to reducing net immigration to the UK. One of the proposed strategies to achieve this was by by capping non-EU immigration through the points-based system. Changes to this system have impacted on the movement of international (non-EU) scientists and could damage UK research. The science community has made a lot of noise about this and government has recognised our concerns – including establishing a route for those identified as having “exceptional talent”. For the latest, check out the Campaign on Science & Engineering’s blog on immigration.

Supportive regulation and governance

  • We urge the UK Government to take forward its announcement to create a health research authority in 2011, outlining a vision for the regulatory functions of the body, and to further develop proposals for a national system of research governance.

The regulation of health research in the UK is very complex, with lots of duplication. It takes a long time to navigate, lengthening the time it takes to get research projects off the ground and escalating costs. Recognising this, back in January the  Academy of Medical Sciences reviewed this regulation  and recommended how it could be improved. Their recommendations included establishing a single regulator of health research. In the Plan for Growth published by the government alongside the 2011 budget, the government committed to setting this up as the Health Research Authority (HRA).

The Academy’s recommendations to improve the system are widely supported and we’re concerned that the new Health Research Authority can deliver these. We’re waiting for government to publish more detail and kick off the process of setting up the authority as a special health authority. This will involve introducing a statutory instrument to parliament. It will then be set up through primary legislation later.

  • The Government should ensure that transposition of the EU Directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes maintains the current high standards for animal protection that we have in the UK, whilst ensuring a supportive environment for research.

The directive governing the use of animals in research across the EU has recently been revised. UK law needs to be brought into line with these revisions by November 2012 (more info here). The UK currently has much stricter legislation in place governing research using animals than across much of Europe. The transposition process includes identifying where current UK standards and requirements ensure higher welfare standards for animals and should be retained. The UK Home Office has been consulting on how best to do this.

What next?

The health research community have welcomed this report, supporting it’s recommendations.

We are about to head to the party conferences so I’m sure this will be a topic of conversation… AMRC are working with LifeSciencesUK (a coalition of UK healthcare industry groups) to hold discussion breakfasts focused on health research – and the New Statesman has events focused on health research at each of the conferences this year, which Cancer Research UK will be speaking at.

And with the government’s research and innovation strategy being developed at the moment, timing is perfect for these recommendations to feed in.

Posted in: Policy