Mental health research ‘being short-changed’, academics claim

The grouping of subjects such as neuroscience and psychiatry with cheaper disciplines will lead to what critics say is a failure to fairly fund mental health research

July 28, 2016
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Wrong-headed: one academic said that the funding formula will hit research in areas such as dementia, depression and addiction

Universities will lose out on tens of millions of pounds as a result of a change to the way mental health research is funded, researchers have claimed.

Campaigners say that the move by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) “flies in the face” of a growing emphasis on mental health by politicians and the public.

The row stems from a decision not to fund clinical and bioscience mental health research at the same level as similarly expensive research into physical health.

This is because in the 2014 research excellence framework, expensive research areas such as psychiatry and neuroscience, which often require costly wet labs and MRI scanners, were grouped into the same unit of assessment as cheaper subjects such as social psychology.

Hefce then worked out funding levels on the basis of an average between these high- and low-cost disciplines, leading to significantly less being awarded for mental health research compared with physical health because the latter was in a separate REF unit that included only high-cost research.

Chris Mottershead, vice-principal (research and innovation) at King’s College London, has calculated that this discrepancy will mean that his university's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience will get almost a third less funding than expected, equivalent to nearly £3 million a year.

“Our principal concern is that mental health is being treated differently from physical health,” he said.

‘People know this is wrong’

Although no positions are at risk because of the funding formula, Mr Mottershead said that it would prevent millions of pounds of research being done. The situation was “completely unacceptable”, he said. “People know this is wrong, but they are unwilling to go away and correct it.”

Andrew Clark, director of research planning at University College London, said that the formula would cost his institution £2.4 million a year. He said that UCL had “no idea” of the new funding formula when the REF assessment was ongoing.

It will hit neuroscience and psychiatry research aiming to find cures to conditions such as dementia, depression, stress, anxiety and addiction, he said. No researchers would be laid off, but as with King’s he said that it means that it will be harder to expand research projects.

Meanwhile, John Geddes, head of the psychiatry department at the University of Oxford, said that the allocation decision would mean Oxford losing about £1.5 million a year and, along with other funding pressures, it meant that the university had to leave senior professorial posts open.

“It’s another example of a lack of ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical disorders,” he said.

The issue was also raised in the House of Lords earlier this year by crossbench peer Lord Crisp, former chief executive of the NHS, who asked the government “why clinical research in mental health is scheduled to receive a tariff 32 per cent lower than for other clinical medicine subjects”.

Vanessa Pinfold, research director at the mental health research charity the McPin Foundation, said that the decision “doesn’t make sense” because it “flies in the face” of greater emphasis by politicians on mental health. “It feels like it’s going against the direction of policy,” she added.

David Cameron, the former prime minister, repeatedly made calls for greater efforts to tackle dementia, and the 2015 Conservative manifesto pledged to “take your mental health as seriously as your physical health”. Theresa May appears to have continued this emphasis, saying in her first speech as prime minister that “if you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand”.

Charity research funders have also shifted towards mental health projects, said UCL’s Dr Clark. “Hefce is the one organisation out of line on this,” he argued.

A spokesman for Hefce said that “due to the mixture of high and lower-cost subjects” in the mental health REF unit of assessment “it is not as costly as…clinical medicine and therefore cannot be funded on that basis that all of the activity is clinical”.

He stressed that Hefce research funding was not allocated to specific disciplines, but instead awarded as a block to the university. “It is for each institution to determine the appropriate allocation of funding within their institution, taking account of the inevitable difference in activity between one higher education institution and another,” he added.

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