The extra £250 million of UK research funding does not answer every doubt

Long-term public and economic health depends on empowering universities, businesses and health systems to work together, says Michael Spence

April 8, 2021
A surgeon watches as a line on a monitor spikes downwards, symbolising cuts to health research
Source: iStock

Almost a year ago to the day, three UCL academics met in the university’s academic common room. It was six days before the UK first went into lockdown and the NHS was struggling to cope with a national shortage of mechanical ventilators.

Over a drink, Rebecca Shipley (professor of healthcare engineering), Tim Baker (professor of engineering and Formula One engine designer) and Mervyn Singer (professor of intensive care medicine at UCL Hospitals Trust) discussed how they could help. Together, they came up with the idea of reverse engineering a WhisperFlow CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device, which had not been widely used in the NHS for some time.

With the help of industry partner Mercedes-AMG HPP, the team disassembled and analysed an off-patent device and improved it using computer simulations to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production. Just 10 days later, this was officially approved for use in the NHS. The speed was unprecedented.

Today, the UCL Ventura breathing aid, as it is now known, is helping to save the lives of seriously ill Covid-19 patients in more than 130 hospitals in the UK alone – as well as more in at least 15 other countries across the world. The designs and manufacturing instructions have been freely downloaded in over 100 countries.

This story is just one of the countless remarkable examples of scientific breakthroughs, innovations and collaborations between UK universities, hospitals and industry that have emerged in the past year. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the rapid generation of vaccines by UK scientists and the discovery of new uses of drugs, such as dexamethasone and tocilizumab. As a nation, we have achieved in days and months what would usually take many years.

This doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because research that takes place in our world-leading universities is interwoven within the fabric of the NHS and industry.

Scientific discoveries that were not originally intended for commercial application have been used in novel and repurposed ways because universities are at the forefront of knowledge and innovation. Researchers at UCL, for example, also work as clinical consultants in major hospitals. This enables them to work directly from within the NHS with patients to collect samples and data, trial responses to therapies and deliver groundbreaking treatments.

The same also goes for our engineers, physicists, social scientists, lawyers, teachers and many others, who work in multidisciplinary partnerships with industries and public bodies across the UK and beyond.

But our Covid successes are also a wake-up call. They underline just how much will be lost if we fail to ensure that health research in universities and the NHS is financially sustainable for the long term.

It is welcome that the government wants to raise total investment in research and development to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 and that an additional £250 million in funding to support the UK’s association to Horizon Europe was announced just before Easter. But questions remain over how the government plans to meet both of these commitments.

Cuts to research funding through Official Development Assistance (ODA) are also going ahead. These are hugely damaging, not only to UK researchers’ immediate ability to help solve major societal problems in low- and middle-income countries, but also to the UK’s long-term international relationships and “Global Britain” ambitions.

These changes to the funding landscape demonstrate more than ever the need for a coherent plan from government showing how it will deliver its 2.4 per cent commitment. 

Finally, universities and research bodies working with the NHS must be given the freedom to make best use of their intellectual resources. That way, this country’s extraordinary research talent can explore new ideas and make discoveries to treat perennial killers such as cancer and dementia.

Much of this work should continue to be supported by research grants, but healthy levels of performance-driven block grants for universities is an essential part of the picture. This unhypothecated “quality related” (QR) funding allows UK universities to move fast, with minimum bureaucracy, when unexpected threats or opportunities arise, such as Covid-19. Without adequate QR funding, universities would need to go through months of bidding for external research grants every time they needed funding for urgent research. Fast-moving issues like Covid do not wait for the bureaucracy to run its course.

If there is one lesson we can learn from Covid, it is that UK universities, businesses and health systems, working hand in hand, are leading the world in groundbreaking and responsive research. This is saving not just lives but also our economy and the very fabric of our society.

If the UK is to thrive as a nation post-Covid and be ready to tackle the next big global challenges, we must not forget this.

Michael Spence is president and provost of UCL.

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