September 24, 2015; Times Higher Education

Universities in the UK may not be able to continue doing medical research, or so warns the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC).

University medical research in the UK is funded through both government and private funding, most charitable. The government funding is channeled through the National Health Service (NHS) public hospital system, the Medical Research Council (MRC), and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Private funding comes from charities and industry. In 2014, charities were the largest single source of medical research funding at £1.3 billion. However, those three sources of government funding—NHS, MRC, and HEFCE—together provided just under £2.2 billion.

The twist in the tail is that charities mostly will not fund overhead costs of research. Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the AMRC, says that the “policy of not covering overheads is long-standing.” Charities “want to show to donors that their money is directly funding research.” Since 2008, the government, through HEFCE, has provided funds specifically to cover this overhead gap. It adds around an extra quarter to universities’ charitable research grants.

Now, there is speculation that government funding is to be squeezed. MRC is bracing itself for possible major cuts in next year’s budget. Government has asked the department responsible for funding the government research councils to model reductions of between 25 and 40 percent in the run-up to the annual government spending review. In the last review in 2010, the research budget was held steady, but only in cash terms.

There is also a possibility that HEFCE could be scrapped altogether. The universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, at a Universities UK conference described the university funding and regulation as “ripe for simplification.”

Industry, unlike in the U.S., is a junior player in medical research funding. Data is hard to find; however, a 2011 Report for Cancer Research UK estimated research income from industry at UK higher education institutions—not just for medical research, but overall—to be only five percent of the total private and government funding. The same report suggested that a drop in government funding would have a “crowding-in” effect, reducing funding from the private sector.

AMRC head Burnand says that a reduction in funding for research in the spending review could mean that “universities will not consider taking charitable grants” because they cannot afford to cover the related overhead.

The chief executive of the MRC, Professor Sir John Savill, warns that a cut of 25 percent or more would be “little short of catastrophic for the science base.” It could spur major pharmaceutical companies to leave the UK for the US, France, Germany, Singapore or even China.

This warning is echoed by Burnand, who said some charities have already been spending their research funds overseas. “If universities’ money declines, then we will look abroad.”—John Godfrey