It’s all about the ecosystem

Posted on June 5, 2013 by

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This morning I spoke, alongside other science representatives, on a press panel to explain how important preservation or, dare one countenance it, growth, in the UK science budget is for both health and wealth. I reminded the journalists of the importance of charity funding to medical research, not only to support life saving research important though that is, but also the role we play as partners to industry, helping to drive economic growth.

The UK is unique in the size and strength of its philanthropic funding of science. Each year AMRC members spend c£1.2 billion on medical research in the UK and much of this comes from public donation. 9.4 million people give every month and medical research remains the UK’s most popular charitable cause. We are an important part of a funding ecosystem that includes the Government and pharmaceutical Industry; I am convinced that the UK punches above its weight in research partly because of this vibrant ecosystem. But like all ecosystems, it is a fragile and delicate thing – very vulnerable to withdrawal of any one actor.

Two great examples of the ecosystem at work, supporting health and wealth are:

  • MRC/Charity funded Brain Bank. We know that neurodegenerative diseases cost the UK c£23bn a year and more brain research is needed. MRC has partnered with Alzheimers’ Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK, MS Society and Parkinsons UK to develop UK-wide brain banks for researchers to use. All partners have provided funding  and crucially the charities also bring active patient and public support for this much needed science infrastructure
  • There’s an economic dimension too. The new drug Abiraterone developed for late stage prostate cancer was developed in a partnership of the Institute of Cancer Research who patented the idea in 1993, Cancer Research UK who funded the later stage research, the NIHR and Johnson and Johnson. Its a ground breaking drug for a disease where previously there was no therapy and forecast to bring in c$2bn a year in peak sales over the next couple of years.

So – charities are funding life saving research but are also central to wealth creation  – generating economic return to the UK. As Sir Paul Nurse put it, this is science as the seedcorn of macroeconomic growth.

So what do we need to sustain this ecosystem? Well its definitely about the money

There has been much talk about the need to ringfence the science budget and boost capital spending and you won’t be surprised to hear that was a message that got lots of airtime today. All of that is important of course – it’s definitely about the money. We need all partners, charities, government and industry in that ecosystem to play their part; it is clear that withdrawal of one partner could not easily be substituted for by any other.

The government has made a commitment to partner charity funding investment via the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF). This fund of c£200 million offers matched support for universities, in proportion to charities direct investment in research, to cover indirect costs such as heating and lighting. If this fund is cut, the proportionate loss of charity investment in UK research will be much greater. The fund is only currently committed to the end of 2014/15. We believe that government needs to play its part in keeping the lights on at our universities; charities can then invest their research money where their donors expect it to go – on potentially life-saving research projects.  And if the government pulls out – we simply cannot rely on the generosity of the public to fill the hole.

But it is also about more than the money

We need to do all we can to preserve the high quality science base in the UK. That means protecting the combined strength of the research councils; it means adhering to the Haldane principles that the best science is funded independent of shorter range Government priorities. And it  means continued  Government funding of pure “discovery science “ on which much of charity funded disease-specific research will build.

Research is a long game. We need a research strategy whose funding is secure and stable enough to enable the UK take that long view

Posted in: AMRC, Policy