Biomedical research relies on begging bowl

January 31, 1997

Charities are now funding more than twice as many biomedical research papers in the United Kingdom as the Government-funded Medical Research Council.

Joe Anderson, head of the unit for policy research in science and medicine (PRISM) at the Wellcome Trust, claims that of the 30,000 peer-reviewed biomedical papers published annually by UK research groups, the MRC, the single most acknowledged funder, appears on 4,000 papers, while UK-based charities are acknowledged on more than 9,000 papers.

Biomedical research includes clinical trials and near patient investigation, as well as blue skies investigation of areas such as genetics and developmental biology.

A 5 per cent rise between 1988 and 1994 in the number of papers citing MRC support has been dwarfed by a 60 per cent increase in the number of acknowledgements of UK-based charities. According to the Association of Medical Research Charities, these now account for research expenditure of around Pounds 440 million a year.

The Wellcome Trust alone spends Pounds 250 million a year on biomedical research, while this year's MRC allocation was Pounds 281 million, a 1.5 per cent cut in real terms compared with 1995/96. Just over two-thirds of the money spent by the charity sector goes to universities and medical schools.

Dr Anderson said: "It is clear that the balance between the funding sectors is in flux, with the private non-profit sector showing striking growth. Charity money is going up at a time when government money is standing still."

He added: "Our expectation is that the charity sector will continue to grow. If money in is any indication of papers out, then it is unlikely that we will see an increase in MRC papers."

In the same seven years, said Dr Anderson, the number of research publications supported jointly by MRC and a UK charity had risen from just over a third to just under a half of MRC output.

He added that when other bodies, including government departments, industry and professional associations were included, then more than 70 per cent of the MRC's annual output of research publications could be seen to acknowledge at least one other source of funding.

Dr Anderson said: "It is clear that the biomedical research "funding market" is highly fragmented in the UK. I think it represents a healthy move - pluralism can lead to strength. The real challenge for the Government is to maximise the pluralism by making public research establishments more attractive to private investors."

He added: "There are signs that universities and Government research institutes are becoming less attractive to private investors as their infrastructure decays and their overhead charges go up."

Dr Anderson added that quantity of research papers did not necessarily indicate quality, though he conceded: "What we have found is that there is not such a tremendous dislocation between quality and quantity. We have to ask the question, how often do really important breakthroughs come from unproductive groups?"

Jane Lee, director of corporate affairs at the MRC, said: "We think plurality of funding is very helpful in medical research. There is after all a great deal to be done."

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