Charity budget cuts ‘risk lost generation of medical researchers’

Hidden crisis of pandemic may push early career researchers out of science, leaders warn

December 22, 2020
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A slump in philanthropic giving may force thousands of medical scientists to quit the sector as research groups are cut and fellowships cancelled, charity leaders have warned.

Medical research charities fund the salaries of about 17,000 scientists in the UK, with most based in university laboratories, but the drop in charitable funding due to the closure of charity shops and cancellation of fundraising events has caused many organisations to scale back their new commitments.

According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, medical research charities stood to spend £4.1 billion less than expected between now and 2027, with a loss of almost £450 million predicted for 2021-22 alone. Once matched private investment is considered, £7.8 billion of medical research investment is at risk – about £1 of every £10 projected to be invested in medical research over the period, the thinktank warned.

“My main concern is the interruption to the pipeline of scientific talent,” said Metin Avkiran, associate medical director for research at the British Heart Foundation, which has halved its research investment from £100 million to £50 million this year.

“Last year we funded 78 new PhD students and some 40 new fellowships across 11 universities, but even though we’ve tried to protect early career research roles, we will have 25 to 30 per cent fewer appointments this year,” said Professor Avkiran.

“The real impact will be felt in the years to come as it could be devastating to the careers of these highly trained people who would often go on to make a massive contribution to research. We are very aware that we may not be able to nurture talent at a critical time in their careers – we could be talking about a lost generation [of scientists] here,” he added.

Even landmark research centres such as the Francis Crick Institute in London, which receives about £57 million a year from Cancer Research UK (CRUK), may need to cut researcher numbers, it has warned. This month the charity said it needed to cut its research funding by a further £45 million – on top of a £44 million cut announced in April – with the Crick now facing a £20 million hole in its budget next year. The latest cut will result in 68 fewer projects and 328 fewer researchers getting support, CRUK said.

Matt Kaiser, head of careers and discovery research at CRUK, said it was “continually working to minimise the impact” of the forthcoming cuts but the loss of fellowships would be “incredibly tough” on researchers as these awards “support early career researchers at critical stages of their career development”. “In the next two to three years, we will focus on providing all the support and mentoring our current cohort of fellows need,” said Dr Kaiser on the charity’s priorities.

Matthew Hobbs, director of research at Prostate Cancer UK, which has been forced to cut £7 million from its usual £8.5 million annual research spend, said the cuts had centred on fellowships that typically fund researchers for three years after their PhDs.

“That [£7 million] would have funded eight grants and 18 members of staff, usually at postdoc level, and we are really risking losing early career researchers. These are highly skilled staff and a fellowship at this stage could lock them into a research career for another 20 or 30 years, with some eventually leading their own teams,” he said.

David Dexter, deputy director of research at Parkinson’s UK, said that it was disappointing to see medical charities struggling at a time when scientific research enjoys greater levels of public support than ever before.

“We should be seizing this opportunity but instead science has been sideswiped by Covid,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Charity cuts risk ‘lost generation’

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