The discovery of new cancer treatments could be delayed, research institutes shut, and a whole generation of upcoming scientists lost because of a funding crisis in medical research, charities have warned.
Covid-19 has caused fundraising to plummet, with events cancelled and charity shops shut because of the lockdown. The upshot is a dire financial situation that could have a severe impact on research crucial to finding new ways to diagnose, manage and treat diseases from cancer to neurological conditions and heart disease.
“The current pandemic has put the future of charity-funded research at significant risk,” said Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC).
While some charities have furloughed staff, Burnand said the government’s £750m charity support package does not provide cash for medical research.
As a result the AMRC and its 151 member organisations, including Parkinson’s UK, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK), are calling on the government to set up a “life sciences-charity partnership fund” to support research that, they stress, saves lives.
The proposed scheme would be a matched funding programme, lasting at least three years, with the government contributing £310m over the financial year 2020-21 to bridge the funding shortfall from medical research charities. Burnand said that could be tapered down in subsequent years as fundraising picked up, with the hope that government support could galvanise donations from the public.
Medical research charities together spent £1.9bn on research last year – over half of non-commercial medical research funding – with another £1.1bn spent on activities including patient services and support. But, because of the impact of Covid-19, many charities have warned that, without government support, medical research funding will be slashed.
The impact is already being felt. “At the end of April, 74% of clinical trials and studies funded by AMRC charities had been paused,” said Burnand, adding that more than two-thirds of its member charities are deferring upcoming grant rounds and withdrawing future funding.
Breast Cancer Now has already announced it could be making redundancies following the outbreak of Covid-19, and has cancelled two forthcoming research grant funding rounds.
While Burnand said some research was to resume now lockdown has been eased, other projects were not. For research spending by medical research charities to return to pre-Covid-19 levels, it could take four to five years, she warned.
Dr Charmaine Griffiths, BHF’s chief executive, said even with some staff furloughed the charity is losing £10m a month and is facing an unprecedented research funding crisis.
“We anticipate our net income this year falling by 50% and consequently we will have to halve our investment in new research from £100m this year to £50m,” she said, adding that could have a catastrophic impact on UK cardiovascular research.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK, said the charity is expecting a 30% drop in income this year because of Covid-19, meaning research funding could be cut by £150m a year.
“This would be devastating for people with cancer today, and our families and future generations of people, devastating for our science base, and devastating for the economy,” she said. “It could mean a major contraction in CRUK’s infrastructure and potential closure of centres and institutes,” Mitchell added, noting it could also affect plans for clinical trials and hence, potentially, hold back new cancer treatments.
The charities warn funding cuts could also be a disaster for early career researchers, including PhD students.
“We believe we could potentially lose a generation of researchers because of this shock and the reduction in our funding,” said Griffiths.
Mitchell said it had not been possible to access research and development support that is available for businesses, and made a direct plea to Boris Johnson.
“If you believe, prime minister, in improving cancer survival, if you believe in ensuring the UK retains its position as a global scientific power, if you believe in protecting infrastructure and our talented people, you absolutely must commit to supporting the UK’s research charities at a time of our need and give us time to recover and get research back on track.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The UK is home to globally recognised medical research charities, which are an integral part of our world-leading life sciences sector.
“We are working closely with medical research charities to understand the impact of the pandemic on the sector and identify how we can work together, ensuring patients continue benefiting from charity-funded research.”