Charities no panacea for ill effects of medical cuts

Researchers fear scalpel will be taken to specialist areas, with terrible results. Hannah Fearn writes

August 26, 2010

Scientists are increasingly concerned about the future of UK medical research, fearing that the government will impose budget cuts in specialist areas where it believes charities can step in to cover the shortfall.

Craig Robson, professor of molecular urology at Newcastle University and an expert in prostate cancer, said his concern was that the government, through the Medical Research Council, "may decide to pull support for cancer research as it believes that such research can be supported relatively well by charities such as Cancer Research UK".

However, he warned that any such belief was built on shaky foundations, as the charity sector had been heavily affected by the recession and "we haven't seen the full impact yet".

Jonathan Stoye, head of the Division of Virology at the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research, said the consequences of such cuts would be "dire to say the least". "The idea that medical charities might step into the breach is fantasy - the recession has affected their takings, too," he said.

He added that charities such as the Wellcome Trust were not committed to working in the UK and could move their investment overseas if they felt it would benefit their research output.

Claudio Stern, chair of the University College London Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, said prioritising certain disciplines for funding would be dangerous for UK science as a whole.

"Charities already fund research in their areas of interest to some extent, but this is nowhere near enough to sustain the UK's position in science and technology in the future," he said. "Past history both in the UK and elsewhere has repeatedly shown that the most effective strategy ... is simply to fund the best quality research, rather than restricting funding to research in specific areas."

He added that any government cuts to the research budget would have a long-term impact.

"In my opinion, if there is any further cut to the science research budget it will be absolutely devastating and probably irreversible, not only for UK science but for the future of the UK economy," he said.

The MRC is seeking to reassure the research community. Its chief executive, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said that he was fighting to retain the council's full budget, which included an £89 million contribution to cancer research last year.

"We are strong supporters of (cancer research) and removing these sorts of sums would have a huge impact," he said. "All (funders) are contributing to the overall picture of research funding. If you remove any part of that funding you weaken the totality of it.

"It's difficult to see how any charity could single-handedly step into the breach. It's very important that (their contribution is) additional."

He added that he had "no reason" to believe that medical research would be disproportionately affected by the coming cuts, saying: "I'm convinced that the government is listening very hard to the needs of research as a whole."

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