Chris Thomas: It’s time to save our medical research charities

The prime minister has made clear that the life sciences are at the heart of his vision for the country. In his manifesto, he said he’d make the “UK a leading global hub for life science.” And making the UK a “global science superpower” was one of the first commitments he made on winning the Conservative leadership.

There is a growing recognition that the best life science sectors are built on diversity and collaboration. It needs world-leading universities, supporting the world’s best scientists; it needs exciting businesses to drive investment and innovation; it needs a bold and committed public sector, that takes risks and represents society’s priorities.

If there’s one sector given too little recognition, it’s probably our medical research charities. But they are vital. Charities invest £1 in every £5 that goes into UK life science research. That money often goes on the unseen, hard work that makes invention possible. Charities often fund early-stage, high risk research that patients care about, but that might not otherwise be viable to the public or the private sector.

It is often remarked, by those making the case that the public sector has an important role in research and innovation, that the government was behind the tech that sits in modern smart phones. It was key to the development of the internet, touch screen and GPS. We can make a similar argument on the importance of medical charities. No, they haven’t had much of a hand in mobile phones. But they are very likely to have had a defining role in creating the treatment or technology that will one day save your life.

In health, charities have a proud history of driving forward some of the most exciting inventions. Take the last century. In the 1920s, charities were involved in making radiotherapy a viable treatment. In the 1970s, they were key to the discovery of early “clot busting” medications that reduced deaths from heart attacks. In the 1990s, they drove forward Xolair, a drug that has helped 250,000 people with asthma. And today, the HPV vaccine could spell the end for Cervical cancer – another invention with heavy charity-sector involvement.

Medical research charities are a core part of our medical research eco-system. But the covid-19 pandemic poses them an existential risk. For many, fundraising has become difficult, if not impossible. Charity shops have been closed. Fundraising events have been cancelled. People have cut donations in light of new financial uncertainty or lost jobs.

Last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research quantified what that would mean for medical research investment. The think tank estimated that, in sum, covid-19 has put £7.8 billion of medical research investment at risk between now and 2027. Of that, £5.3 billion is down to lost charity income. That is a lot of grants. In fact, it is the funding needed for 35,000 PhD students – or for about seven new Francis Crick institutes.

If that is allowed to pass, it would mean three things. Obviously, it would mean less treatments for patients, and less health innovation. Secondly, it would also have economic consequences. Research is good for productivity, and subsequently for driving up UK living conditions. It is also good for jobs – charities, in particular, fund early-career research opportunities. Finally, it would mean less diversity in UK medical research – less patient involvement and advocacy, less early-stage research and, as a consequence, a weaker link between what people want and what research we do.

Charities have been there for us when we’ve needed them through history. Now, in their moment of greatest need, it’s our chance to be there for them. It will be to the nation’s detriment if they are now left on the proverbial crash cart.

Government must act. One way of saving the sector would be three-year life science charity partnership fund, offering public funds to supplement charity research investment for a period of three years. This would see the government should step in and make up the funding shortfall – giving charities the time and space to adapt, innovate and recover. 

In a period of huge uncertainty, there is a clear reality. If the government do not act to support our medical research charities, then it’s next to impossible to see a route to the prime minister’s vision of a UK science superpower after covid.

Chris Thomas is Senior Health Fellow at Institute for Public Policy Research.

Competing interests: None declared.