UK’s biomedical research funding ‘bubble’ is ‘about to burst’

Call to rebalance funding away from sciences and towards social sciences

July 12, 2018
Bubble pricked with pin

A “biomedical bubble” inflated by decades of imbalanced funding could soon burst to make way for innovation in the social sciences, experts predict.

The creation of UK Research and Innovation earlier this year came with the caveat that research councils would be subject to a re-evaluation of taxpayers’ priorities as the new umbrella body seeks to “advise on the balance of funding across disciplines”.

Now, two University of Sheffield professors have argued that policymakers must push the distribution of public funds towards health and social care initiatives developed through non-medical disciplines while also ensuring a fairer geographical spread of resources.

In The Biomedical Bubble, published by innovation charity Nesta, professor of physics Richard Jones and professor of research policy James Wilsdon say that significant increases in investment, together with growth in public interest, have allowed biomedical research to “distract attention and draw resources away from alternative ways of improving health outcomes”.

“Only 5 per cent of health research funding is spent on researching ways of preventing poor health, and more than half is spent in three cities – London, Oxford and Cambridge,” they write.

A one-dimensional focus towards pharmaceuticals and biotechnology has led funders to ignore the important contribution that the health and social care sector can offer the wider economy, and to overlook the greater returns on investment that research in these areas can have, the professors argue. Additionally, public need for innovation in social healthcare will likely increase with the ageing population.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Wilsdon said that the funding system had been “traditionally neglectful in supporting health sciences”, but that decision-makers had a “golden opportunity” because large-scale public and private investments were being generated in a relatively short timescale.

“UKRI was created with the purpose of looking at the overall system holistically,” he said. “We live in a different world from the one we did 30 years ago. Looking at the research landscape now, there’s a lot that doesn’t fit in with our present-day requirements.”

Ambitious research and development targets set by the UK government will see UKRI’s budget – currently £6 billion – increase to about £8 billion a year by 2020, offering previously underfunded areas the chance to expand.

“For me, it’s about having a balanced debate about who gets access to the extra money coming in and why,” Professor Wilsdon said.

The share of overall research council spending by the Medical Research Council rose from 16 per cent in 2004 to 24 per cent in 2015, he noted, a 75 per cent increase in real terms.

A breakdown of funding allocations between the seven councils under UKRI shows that the MRC’s budget stands at £594 million for 2018-19. Conversely, the Economic and Social Research Council has stagnated, with a budget of £157 million.

Substantial increases in the level of funding available from likes of the Wellcome Trust and other charities for the purposes of “grand challenge”-style projects have also played a role.

But Professor Wilsdon said that UKRI’s first spending review in 2019 would most likely focus on prioritising additional funding for interdisciplinary projects available to research across the spectrum rather than see biomedics “lose out”.

A key recommendation made in the report is for the creation of a new socially driven research centre, along the lines of the biomedicine-focused Francis Crick Institute. A commitment for a “National Institute for People Powered Health…could be delivered at a fraction of the cost of the Crick Institute but bring just as much benefit to the UK population,” the authors state, “particularly if it was located outside the south-east of England”.

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