Cancer Research UK's "difficult" decision to axe its project grants in basic science does not signal any lessening of its commitment either to young researchers or to pure research, the charity has insisted.
CRUK announced last week that it would need to cut its research spending by 10 per cent, or £30 million, over the next three financial years as the result of a sharp drop in its predicted income owing to the economic conditions.
The charity currently spends about £330 million a year on research, a figure comparable to that distributed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Nic Jones, CRUK's chief scientist, told Times Higher Education that most of its grants committees would receive cuts of between 10 and 15 per cent.
The budgets of its five core institutes, which account for 35 per cent of its spending, would be reduced by 5 per cent in 2012-13 and by another 5 per cent the following year.
In basic science, the charity's five-year programme grants, which are awarded to "very high-class, well-established groups" will be protected. But funding for its three-year project grants will be withdrawn completely for the next three years.
Project grants in translational research will remain, but Professor Jones said that these were fewer in number.
He insisted that the charity remained fully committed to funding basic research, and that he did not expect the cuts to "significantly" affect the balance of its spending on basic versus translational and clinical research.
The Wellcome Trust's abolition of its project grants earlier this year prompted fears that early career researchers in the UK would find funding harder to come by.
Sir Andrew McMichael, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Oxford, said he was concerned that CRUK's move could exacerbate the problem and drive young researchers to the US, where project grants were still common.
"There is a group of young scientists, particularly at university lectureship level, who now have almost nowhere to go to get a grant," he said. "The Medical Research Council still has project grants, but they cannot pick up all those who would have once gone to the Wellcome Trust and CRUK."
But Professor Jones said analysis revealed that "quite a small percentage" of CRUK project grants actually went to early career researchers.
Such people were better supported, in his view, through CRUK's Career Development Fellowships, which will not be cut, and via recruitment as principal investigators by its institutes - which happened with "quite significant frequency".
He admitted that time constraints meant the charity's senior managers had consulted only its governing council, which includes senior scientists, about the cuts.
But he said the response from CRUK researchers had been "really measured and professional and very supportive".
Professor Jones said he was "disappointed but it is the reality of the situation".