Treasury fuels fears of cuts to medicine

November 17, 2006

Gordon Brown's plans for a single unified fund for UK health research are set to be ditched months after they were announced, fuelling widespread anxiety about the Treasury's intervention in science, The Times Higher can reveal.

Senior figures in the medical community now expect the Chancellor to announce a focus on patient-based research in his Pre-Budget Speech. But many fear that the Treasury may raid the coffers of basic research to fund this new initiative.

In his annual Budget speech in March, the Chancellor announced a merger of the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health research budgets to create "a single jointly held fund" of at least £1 billion. This would follow in the footsteps of the powerful National Institutes of Health in the US.

But Westminster insiders said this week that the idea had proved unworkable and would be quietly dropped.

Instead the Government's review of health research, chaired by Sir David Cooksey, will recommend a more fragmented model with government research still split between different pots.

The new strategy for UK health research is scheduled to form a major plank of Mr Brown's Pre-Budget Speech in early December. Heated discussions are said to be taking place between the Treasury and senior officials over last-minute redrafting of the plans.

Sources close to the review said Mr Brown would announce a major new stream of funding for clinical research.

This is something that many research organisations, including the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, have been pushing for. It will also serve as a big gesture to the pharmaceutical industry, which wants more government support for clinical trials.

But senior figures in the university sector are privately warning that the Treasury may seek to rebadge money that has previously been allocated for basic research.

One senior medic said: "We are getting used to the Treasury's smoke and mirrors. They will announce more money for clinical research, but there is a lot of scepticism about whether this will simply be cash diverted from the MRC's budget."

At a time when the MRC is funding fewer applications than ever before - 80 per cent are unsuccessful - such a move could prove disastrous for researchers on the ground.

Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said: "The MRC's research funds are already under pressure and this has resulted in falling success rates for research proposals and the subsequent rejection of excellent projects. It is vital that an increased emphasis on clinical research activity does not happen at the expense of basic science."

Sir Keith Peters, former regius professor of physic at Cambridge University and acting director of the National Institute for Medical Research, praised the focus on clinical research but warned that this funding must not be controlled by the Department of Health.

He said: "I recognise that both sides need to work together, but I certainly would not want to see clinical research stripped out of the MRC budget."

An influential head of medicine at a leading university said: "The 'new'

money must not come from the MRC's budget. It would be fine if it were taken from the National Health Service budget because everyone knows that that money isn't spent on research, but on propping up teaching hospitals in London."

The head of research at one old university said: "I have heard that the unified single fund isn't going ahead. It is a great shame. I would have loved to see the Government bringing together basic, translational and clinical research in this country. It is too compartmentalised - real research crosses boundaries."

While the Pre-Budget Speech may be presented as another triumph for science, senior figures in the sector said this week that they were losing faith in the Treasury's research mission.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, said: "We don't feel at all confident about the Treasury having control of science in this country. They are putting all this extra money in and they want to know what is coming out of the other end of the sausage machine. But science doesn't work like that."

He added: "I think that Lord Sainsbury's departure is not unconnected with the Treasury's seizing control of the science agenda and changing the emphasis. He has been a great champion of science and I wonder if he feels the ground is shifting."

Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: "The Treasury promised billions in new funding in the ten-year review of science, but the Government has now said explicitly that it can't deliver what it promised unless there is much more investment from industry. That gives it an easy cop-out."

He added: "People in the sector were in favour of the proposed single fund because they thought it could be about dragging NHS research up to the level of the MRC.

"That would be really good. But if the Treasury's plans end up dragging the MRC down, that would be disastrous."

The Treasury told The Times Higher that it could not comment on its plans for health research as they were still under discussion.

A spokesperson said: "We await the findings of the Cooksey review when it is published around the time of the Pre-Budget Report."

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