The Association of Medical Research Charities warns that without immediate government funding, “progress in saving and improving lives will be set back decades.”
Charitable funding is a major part of the research landscape in the UK. According to the AMRC, it makes up half of publicly funded health research.
In 2019, 151 AMRC charities invested £1.9 billion in medical research across the UK – more than the government-funded Medical Research Council and National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) combined.
Carol Bewick, Director of Membership Engagement and Communications at AMRC, said their charities had played a “critical role” in supporting the fight against Covid, whilst much of their own research was put on hold.
“The only way out of this pandemic has been, and continues to be, through research,” she said. “The UK needs the funding charities provide. Without it we will diminish our capacity to tackle big health challenges both now and in the future.”
Since June 2020, the AMRC have campaigned for the Government to provide financial support for charity-funded research at risk. More than 80 MPs and Lords have lent their support but this has yet to translate into government action.
Cancer Research UK are predicting a £300 million drop in their income over the next three years. Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cuts to our life-saving research are incredibly difficult, but sadly unavoidable.”
Mitchell said without financial support they will need to make major cuts every year for the next four to five years. Across the UK, she warns this could mean spending £150 million less per year on cancer research than planned.
Hugh Adams, Head of Stakeholder Relations at Brain Tumour Research, believes charities who fund medical research have been overlooked during the pandemic in favour of perceived “frontline” organisations. In April 2020, the Government issued a £750 million charity support package. However, medical research charities were largely left out.
“The reason I think we are frontline is that we do two things,” he said. “We campaign and we fund research – and both of those things give people hope and purpose. I can’t think of anything more frontline than giving people hope.”
Calling for action, Adams said: “We do as much as we can. We can only underpin so much of this research, and it’s time for the Government to step up and do more.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The UK is home to globally-recognised medical research charities, which are an integral part of our world-leading life sciences sector, backed by millions of pounds of government funding.
“The Government is working closely with medical research charities to understand the impact of the pandemic to ensure patients can continue to benefit from research.”
The spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said medical research charities have had access to significant support throughout the pandemic, “including our job support schemes and package to support university research impacted by COVID-19.”
The Government continues to support charity funded clinical trials and investigations through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) but medical research charities say it does not go far enough.
The UK has already lost many scientists from the job market who were forced to return to their home countries when Covid began to erode their funding.
Hugh Adams said when Covid broke, the first thing people did was look to scientists. “Scientists were going to navigate us out of here,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be politicians. It wasn’t going to be the corporates – it was the scientists that we looked to.” Now specialists fear their continued loss from the field will have a negative impact on breakthrough developments in health, patient outcomes and the economy.
Michelle Mitchell believes the work of medical research charities like Cancer Research must be protected if the UK is to cement its position as a world-leader in science and innovation over the next decade.
“There is an opportunity for this government to invest in cancer research to ensure the UK maintains its world-leading status on the international stage,” she said. “The pandemic has made our mission of beating cancer harder to achieve but we’re responding to the challenges and opportunities of our changing world, and we will never give up.”
During the pandemic, clinical trials and new drug developments for non-Covid illnesses have faced delays or stopped entirely. The AMRC said without charitable funding the amount of research into cancer, cardiovascular diseases, mental illness and rare diseases will drop drastically and geographical health inequalities will widen.
Medical research charities appreciate why the focus is on Covid but are concerned about the setbacks in treatments for other conditions.
David Jenkinson, Chief Security Officer at Brain Tumour Charity, said: “It’s an understandable delay, but obviously in no way shape or form is it good. People’s lives are being put at risk by it. We need to clear that backlog as quickly as we can and make sure people get the treatment that they need.”
According to Jenkinson, there are more than 40,000 undiagnosed cancers currently as a result of Covid. He said: “There are priorities, and of course we understand that, but it’s short-sighted to ignore medical research at a time when medical research has proved its value.”
Adams believes there are lessons to be learnt from the resources and methods poured into the Covid response. He acknowledges that these are “extraordinary times” but said “you can’t stop because they are extraordinary, you just have to do things differently.”