Research charity crisis affects the whole development ecosystem

Hopes that the UK government would step in to support charity-funded medical research were dashed when the sector received no mention in the Budget despite campaigns to secure additional support. So, when research is at risk, what are the potential consequences for patient care, the wider research community, and UK plc in general?

Charity-funded medical research is a vital cog in the clinical development machine – but COVID-19 has left it facing an existential threat.

A survey of the Association of Medical Research Charities’ (AMRC) 150 members found they predicted a 38% drop in income for the 2020/21 financial year, resulting in a 40% reduction in the volume of research they would be able to carry out in 2021/22.

Speaking to pharmaphorum just before the Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined his Budget earlier this month, Nisha Tailor, director of policy and public affairs at AMRC, said: “The impact of COVID-19 has been significant on medical research charities.

“Fund-raising events, such as marathons, were cancelled, and the economic impact has seen a significant reduction in donations.”

At the same time, core services such as support lines and educational resources have seen a surge in demand. It means groups have had to take difficult decisions around research funding – decisions that could have long-term reverberations for the whole clinical development sector.

“We did a survey of around 500 charity-funded early career researchers and found 40% were considering leaving research because of funding concerns”

“Research is a long-term endeavour. A 40% cut now will have real long-term impacts in terms of the progress that is made not just over the next decade, but for decades to come,” said Tailor.

“Less research equals slower progress towards better treatments and care for patients.”

Policy decision

Despite a sector-wide Research at Risk campaign calling for a three-year life sciences charity partnership fund, and previous government commitments to support a “world-class” life sciences industry, the issue was not addressed in the Budget.

In a statement, Hilary Reynolds, the association’s chief executive, expressed the group’s disappointment.

“While relying on science and our world-beating research base to bring us out of this current health crisis, the government has chosen yet again not to provide any clear support for charity-funded medical research,” she said.

“The integral role medical research charities play in UK research is under huge threat from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without support now, the amount of research charities can afford to fund will continue to plummet, placing a generation of early career researchers at risk.”

Larger ecosystem

Tailor explained that the AMRC’s members, who have collectively funded more than £14bn worth of research since 2018, have been forced to cancel and defer grant rounds as their income has plummeted.

The consequences are potentially devastating for patient care, the wider research community, and for UK plc at large, she said.

“The loss of charity funding is risking the loss of a generation of researchers and expertise,” she said.

“We did a survey of around 500 charity-funded early career researchers back in October and found 40% were considering leaving research because of funding concerns. These are really significant figures.”

Many of today’s leading scientists, including the government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and lead researcher of the Oxford Vaccine Team, Professor Sarah Gilbert, started their careers with charity funding, said Tailor.

“Early career researchers are the talent of the future. And without early charity funding, that expertise could take a serious knock.”

A lack of charity-funding research, which typically takes a less risk-adverse approach to development than its commercial counterparts, could also have knock-on effects on future pipelines.

“One of the things our members are really good at is funding early stage, high-risk research. Industry are essential partners in advancing these findings, but if charities are funding less, there will be fewer findings to take forward,” said Tailor, who thanked all AMRC’s partners in the pharma and academic research space for their support with the Research at Risk campaign

The fact that research charities are led by patients and patient insights also makes them an invaluable part of the research community.

“Their strategies, because they are patient-led, bring forward research and innovation that focuses on what matters most. The really good links they have with their networks and their beneficiaries allow them to bring something unique to the table.

“There are so many examples of products that have come to the market but would have failed without early patient input. That is the real strength of medical research strategies, and just one example of what we would be missing with less charity-funded research.”

All this shows that medical research charities are part of the UK’s diverse clinical development infrastructure. As such, said Tailor, the government needs them if it is to achieve its stated aim of making the UK a centre of life sciences.

In her statement, Reynolds said the AMRC has “continued to talk with the government, bringing to life the impact of reduced charity-funded research”.

“[We] continue to hope that the government has listened and will provide some practical financial support from funding allocated in the autumn spending review,” she added.

About the author

Amanda Barrell

Amanda Barrell is a freelance health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, healthcare professionals and the general public.