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Medical charities have expressed dismay at the UK government’s failure to act over hundreds of millions of pounds of research that is at risk because of the catastrophic impact of Covid on fundraising.
With charity shops closed and fundraising events cancelled, medical charities have been forced to cut more than 40% of their research spending in the past year, and have told institutions that more cuts will follow.
In an 11th hour deal last week, the government announced £250m to help pay for the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, an international, seven-year research programme. But leading scientific institutions still face cuts of more than 20% because of the collapse in medical charity funding.
Carol Bewick, the director of membership engagement and communications at the Association of Medical Research Charities, said the Horizon Europe commitment was welcome news for scientists and researchers but “this will not remedy the drastic shortfall in charity research funding that they are facing”.
She said: “Since June last year we’ve been telling government that charity-funded research is at risk, but time and time again they’ve failed to protect it.” The charities paid for half of all publicly funded medical research in the UK in 2019.
Medical charities have asked the government for £310m to be matched by charity funding for at least three years, but despite cross-party backing for the proposed Life Sciences-Charity Partnership Fund, no support has been forthcoming.
The Institute of Cancer Research, which has discovered 20 new candidate drugs since 2005, has suffered a 20% cut in research funding because of medical charity shortfalls during the pandemic. The loss of grants will hit drug discovery and other areas of cancer research, and more cuts are expected this financial year.
“Overall, our cancer research, including drug discovery work, has probably been set back 12 to 18 months and there is another round of cuts coming through,” said Prof Paul Workman, the institute’s chief executive. “This will have a real impact.” The situation is aggravated by the need to limit the number of people working in labs, he said.
The last-minute funding for Horizon Europe has averted what Workman called “a perfect storm” that threatened a further fifth of the institute’s research. “My plea to the government now is please don’t forget that you haven’t given any relief to mitigate the loss to medical research charities,” he said. “We are still attempting to weather a very big storm.”The UK will never become a 'science superpower' if it's cutting research budgets | Jeremy Farrar Read more
Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest independent cancer charity, said that without fresh support it would need to make big cuts to its research budget, equivalent to £150m, every year for the next four to five years. “The government still has the opportunity to provide the support needed to ensure medical charities don’t have to make swathing cuts,” said Michelle Mitchell, the charity’s chief executive.
Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel laureate and head of the Francis Crick Institute, said his research centre had lost £20m in medical research charity grants that would have meant major redundancies had he not been able to raise the money from other sources over the past six months. “What is happening in other institutions has got to be significant,” he said.
“The charities are asking for a bridge until their funding comes back up again and I’m astonished the government doesn’t see that as something to support. They are ignoring the problems the charities have,.”
The shortfall in medical charity grants comes on top of £120m of research funding lost from UK Research and Innovation, the central science funding body, after the overseas aid budget was reduced. The decision has already led to the closure of international research programmes and threatens ongoing work to monitor the emergence of worrisome new variants of coronavirus.