Not what the researcher ordered: medical charities reduce the dose

Association says members may be diverting cash to meet care demands. Elizabeth Gibney reports

June 21, 2012

Research spending in the UK by medical charities fell in 2011-12 after several years of growth - a sign that the UK's economic crisis could be having an effect on the area.

The amount that members of the Association of Medical Research Charities allocated to UK research grants and fellowships fell by £14 million last year, the body's latest results show. Estimates suggest that more than 80 per cent of the £1.1 billion it spent went to universities.

The drop follows five years of rapid growth from 2005-06, which began to slow in 2010-11.

"There is a sense it is a point of inflection," Sharmila Nebhrajani, chief executive of the AMRC, told Times Higher Education. She said that not only was members' income from key sources such as donations static but there was also a sense that charities might be diverting cash from research into care.

"We don't yet have enough robust data to know if it's true, but many of these charities are also funding care and demand is increasing," she said. "We need to guard against that and say that research is not an easy place to take money from."

Further strains on funding may be masked by charities drawing on reserves in order to fulfil multi-year grants allocated in more prosperous times, Ms Nebhrajani said, adding: "Charities...are using reserves to fund research. That's a sign of strong commitment [but it] can't go on for ever."

Overall, when capital and overseas spending is also included, AMRC members spent £1. billion on medical research in 2011-12, with an increasing proportion going to capital projects and ventures abroad.

The latter is probably the result of rare-disease charities collaborating more with European partners, while the slight rise in the former may be due to charities compensating for cuts by other funders, Ms Nebhrajani said.

She added that in response to austere times, some mid-sized charities were spending less and smaller ones were merging, although this should not necessarily be seen as a problem. Collaboration could mean reducing duplication and charities getting "more bang for their buck", she said.

Government support for charity research remains strong, she added, with overhead costs for work done in universities covered by the £198 million Charity Research Support Fund and in the NHS by the Department of Health under a newly agreed deal.

Ms Nebhrajani also joined the chorus calling for a united voice in negotiations with the Treasury on science spending ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review in 2013 or 2014.

"If money is tight, impact is king. We absolutely, as a sector and as funders, have to have a common way of thinking about where we're having most impact," she said.

The association's 126 members, which include the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK as well as bodies with budgets of less than £1 million, spend more on research than either the Medical Research Council or the DoH's National Institute for Health Research.

The AMRC's results were presented at the Association of Research Managers and Administrators UK's annual conference on 12 June.

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