Cancer Research UK does not have all the answers..and that’s an invitation to the rest of us

I see that Cancer Research UK last week put out a press statement about the need for the UK to have strategic vision for medical research. You can find further details on their blog and they also issued a document entitled ‘Building the Right Environment for Medical Research.’

Thoughtfully the announcement and document have been sensibly timed so that you and I can carry it under our arms during the party conference season now upon us. All with the aim of stimulating debate in the run up to the Government consulting on and producing a research and innovation strategy. And how overdue is that particular gem I ask you?

‘Building the Right Environment’ is a curious document. It might seem strange but the main thought I had after reading it is that it would be hard to disagree with any of it. Is that because it it’s smack on the mark in terms of its prescription, or not challenging enough?  Discuss.

When I jotted down my initial reactions this is what I came up with, warts and all:

  • The conclusions are based on interviews with thirty or so Cancer Research UK scientists so, naturally, it reflects the priorities of that community. Nothing wrong in that and many of them are common to us all across science. But if you’re fighting for a rarer cause then your concerns are probably a bit more ‘fund’-amental. 
  •  Other partners involved in research such as patients might have an alternative but helpful perspective.
  • The recommendations are all good but quite specific and tactical. Each has a strategic role to play but it would be good to have  seen something in it to say how it might all hang together in terms of a coherent vision for UK medical research.
  • It misses some of the big stuff. To take clinical research for instance it rightly talks about the new Health Research Authority but there are other tussles that need addressing to get us further – how to integrate all the parts of NIHR into one system for instance, or how to engage the public in such a way as to drive up participation in and recruitment to trials. This is the additional stuff that is going to weigh us down.
  • I would like to have seen it pose some strategic questions for debate rather than simply proposing answers to a much-spoken about but ill-defined problem. What are the main challenges to how we do things now and is our model sustainable in the long-term? Again, things like clinical trials networks are well-embedded in the world of cancer but have some way to go in other fields.  How do we get there…quickly?
  • It doesn’t really look at the relative role played by different research funders and how this might be thought through – together – so we are more strategic as a community. Should charities be clustering around disease areas for instance in the way that we have therapeutic clusters developing between academics and industry (that’s off the top of my head)?

I just throw this out there.  As I am sure they would readily admit, Cancer Research UK does not have all the answers to our woes and that’s an open invitation to the rest of us.  So, if this document gets us to think a little deeper and debate more then that has to be a good thing.   

In that spirit I welcome it just as others have.  But I can’t quite get rid of a nagging feeling that it would have been great if it had gone just that little bit further.

A 'silver cloud' with a dark lining? – medical research charities in the recession

I suspect you may have seen the bleak forecast made by charity chief executives in the latest National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) survey published today.  97% of those surveyed said they expected economic conditions to be negative and 55% advised that they would be reducing their staff.

Tough times indeed.  And so this seems an opportune moment to publish for the first time, AMRC’s up-to-date evidence of how medical research charities in particular are faring.  If you have time to spare, you can find the summary results from our survey conducted in February (and interpretation) here.  The headline figure of 63% of our members saying the affect of the recession was significant or very significant certainly bears out what chief execs are saying in the NCVO study.  If nothing else, it underlines the point that charities are suffering in general.

I tend to agree withStuart Etherington from NCVO that, if the Government is really serious about charities being a full partner in the economy, then it better get its act together and develop a growth strategy with us, for us, and fast.

But forgive me if I necessarily concentrate on making a few, brief science-focused comments and observations based on our own survey:

The good news is that the forecasts for research expenditure by AMRC’s members are on a par with the last time we did this survey in 2009 - if not a little better.  Then, 63% of member charities said their future funding would stay the same and 21% said they would be increasing funding.  This year, 55% said they would be maintaining their funding at the same levels and 32.5% said they would be increasing it.

On the down side, a slighter higher number of members - 12.5% this year versus 8% last time – say they do not intend to fund new research this year or plan to reduce funding.    The economy is perhaps amplifying the diversity in the sector – particularly the difference between the top and the tail of the AMRC family –  just as corrections in any market are wont to do.  The texture of the comments provided by charities is also interesting in showing how a) pressures elsewhere are rippling across to our members (a further point is made on this below) but also b) the the very significant strategic rethink  some organisations are undertaking as opposed to a mere trimming of activity.

This year we deliberately asked our members for their first impressions of the impact of the spending review.  Three themes emerge.

The first is anecdotal only but the squeeze on public finances and cuts to services elsewhere is forcing some medical research charities who also provide care services, to consider diverting funds from research to the latter.  As I say in the survey report:

‘Interestingly, this year we are beginning to see a narrative emerge which reports that economic conditions are not just impacting income but the growth and room for manoeuvre for charities in fulfilling their objectives.  As one respondent put it: 

 ‘The impact is not limited to income, but more about how we will need to use our funds. As a charity that encompasses both care and research, we are beginning to see the impact of statutory retreat, with a significant rise in requests for support from patients and families. This is likely to require us to divert funds from research to care-based activities.’

How far and wide this trend extends only time will tell.

The second is a perception among members of shrinkage in the research infrastructure which – a bit like the proverbial air bubble in one’s recently covered text book which simply moves elsewhere when pressed – means extra pressure in other parts of the system.

Which leads me onto the third – as predicted by Dame Bridget Ogilvie in her guest blog here last autumn .  Namely, that AMRC member charities are beginning to see an increase in the number of grant applications they are receiving.  More than one Chief Executive has already expressed to me the difficulties of managing this, both in terms of administration but also in terms of ensuring they continue to derive the highest quality from the ideas being put forward.

Finally, today we have also updated our data to show the sector’s research expenditure for 2010-2011.  During that period, AMRC’s member charities spent £1.137 billion on research (excluding capital expenditure) versus £1,078 billion last year.  A slight increase therefore and a record to be proud of given the environment.  But the salutory story looking back over the longer term, is that this is the smallest increase we have seen since 2005 and the first quantitative indication of what economists might call a ‘slow-down.’

Being an optimist by nature I comfort myself with the knowledge that medical research remains the No. 1 cause that the public gives to.  But it would appear today that even this silver cloud has a somewhat dark lining.

The message to supporters and the public remains the same as it has over the past few years – your donations are vital to charities continuing to support medical research of patient benefit!

Pfizer…and innovation emergencies

The news that Pfizer is to close its R&D facility in Sandwich in Kent has shaken us from our sleepy winter hollows.

I’ve been watching the reactions and comments come over the wires as I am sure you have.  This is clearly a company going through considerable transition as it tries to change with the times – see the Reuters round-up of their results today for a good insight.  And essentially its the sort of hard-headed business decision that US companies seem prone to take about their global operations when restructuring.

So, a comment on Pfizer’s view of the UK as a place to do science?  No.  As a place to do business?  Possibly. 

But perhaps we should treat it as though it were the former.  For, ultimately, the impact is the same.  The loss of a world-class R&D facility in the UK.  As others have said today, it shows we need to up our game in how the Government and those across research work with industry.

Meanwhile…and no link between the stories is intended…I’ve been absorbing today’s report by the European Commission (see also BBC News)  ‘ Innovation Union Scoreboard’  It looks at the research and innovation performance of the 27 member states of the European Union.  The basic story is that the UK is rated an ‘Innovation Follower’ (just outside the ‘Innovation Leader’ category) and is playing catch-up with those ahead of it at a slower rate than its peers in the ‘Follower’ group. 

If you look at the country profile for the UK on page 50 it says some complimentary things about the UK having an ‘open, attractive, research systems’ and the stats show we are above average in the number of non-EU doctorate students (relevant to the immigration debate surely) and public R&D expenditure.  On most of the remaining indicators the story is not so good.

The European Commission, whose way with words is to be eternally admired, says the report is evidence of an ‘Innovation Emergency.’  I am not sure what to do in an ‘Innovation Emergency’ are you?  Other than look for my patent box of course.

Science budget: where will the money go?

If you are looking for the detail of today’s announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the science budget allocations for the spending review period then please look at the excellent summary by our policy and public affairs manager, Becky Purvis, here.

Further perspective from me in due course.  But, given Breast Cancer Campaign’s letter on CRSF last week and our ongoing campaign on this issue, I am very pleased about the Government’s guideline to HEFCE that they allocate research funding to universities with the aim of protecting funding from external sources including that from medical research charities.  We’ll know more in the New Year.

UKCMRI Gets Go-ahead…and news on CST

Those who visit this blog regularly will know that we’ve been following progress with the plans to build the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in London ever since our first post.  So, in what feels like an early Christmas present for science, it is good to be able to report that yesterday Camden Town Hall councillors gave their go-ahead to the project. 

 The Wellcome Trust has a straightforward press notice on it (they are one of four partners involved, the others being Cancer Research UK, UCL and the Medical Research Council) but I can highly recommend the UKCMRI website as well where you can get a better idea of what the centre will look like and what it will do.  Let’s hope the new centre will be snowproof unlike the rest of London.

In other news this week..this hasn’t been picked-up very widely but the Prime Minister’s Office announced the membership of the re-constituted Council for Science and Technology which was set-up in the early nineties (and re-launched in 2007) to advise the PM on cross-cutting issues of strategic importance.  The Council is also advertising for ten independent members.

Thw word is that Monday looks like the day when the Government will announce the science budget allocations…and I also hope that we can publish our independent report of the AMRC/INVOLVE patient workshop on research regulation.

Times Letter on Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF)

A brief but important mention of the letter in today’s Times signed by over 100 cancer scientists and doctors.  The letter cites Breast Cancer Campaign (an AMRC member) and highlights the importance of the Government-backed Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) to the funding of research in universities by medical research charities. 

If you want a succinct but well-articulated case for CRSF then you need look no further than this letter.  And it’s significant in my opinion that the argument is being made directly by scientists themselves rather than charities.  This is not special pleading.  The fact is that the Fund is an important foundation for the partnership between Government, universities and charities in the name of research, and a vital mechanism for helping to leverage research funds from our sector.

You may also wish to look at the joint statement on CRSF that AMRC produced with BHF, Breast Cancer Campaign, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, Universities UK and the Russell Group in July this year.  The statement was submitted with our spending review submission.

All our discussions with Government thus far suggest the arguments for the Fund have been accepted just as those on ‘science = economic growth’ were taken on board by HM Treasury with its spending review announcement.  But how this translates into actual money won’t be known for possibly a few weeks yet. So letters like today’s can play a useful role in keeping the issues to the fore.

OECD Publishes Science Outlook Report 2010 inc. UK profile

So the OECD – which publishes a series of ‘state of…’ reports throughout the year – has today (Tuesday 14th December) published its Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2010.

If you are a member of the public it looks as if you can only download a summary of the report at the moment.  Overall messages seem to be:

Science, technology and industry are vital to long-term economic growth and it is essential for ‘countries to ‘maintain productive investments in knowledge.’  The press release is stronger and says ‘must’ maintain investment.

The policy response of OECD countries is showing some signs of divergence with some economies increasing investment and others not.  It warns  that reducing resources for public research may reduce human resources available for innovation in the long-run.

Overall, growth in R&D spending in the OECD area slowed during 2007 and 2008

In contrast, some non-OECD countries such as China have invested significantly in science and are becoming ‘serious players.’  China’s R&D spend as a % equivalent of OECD spend was 13.1% in 2008, up from around 5% in 2001

There is a ‘greening’ of research strategies in many countries while health and quality of life remain important priorities.

There is a growing emphasis on international collaboration in national strategies and it singles out Germany and the Nordic countries as examples.

The mix of policies by which governments support innovation is complex and will continue to grow in complexity.  Policy coherence can be  improved through’multi-actor’ forums it says, supported by information systems and advanced analytical tools.

There is also a country profile for the UK that you can read. It says the UK continues to perform strongly (we are third in the ranking of countries by number of articles published (the US and Japan being ahead of us) although R%D spend remans well below the OECD average.  The spider diagram in this summary is worth a look.  It paints quite a positive picture of where the UK lies as against OECD averages.

But whether we’ll see such a healthy report in one or two years time remains to be seen….