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Funding cuts create perfect storm that could capsize cancer research in the UK


The UK’s science budget faces catastrophic cuts – on top of the alarming impact of Covid-19 on medical research organisations. Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of the ICR, warns that without a change in course from the Government, cancer research in the UK is heading for a perfect storm with an impact that could last decades.

Posted on 29 March, 2021 by Professor Paul Workman

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UPDATED 15 May 2021 following a Government announcement on the UKRI budget for the coming year – see the end of the blog post for details.

Cutting the UK research budget now would be catastrophic for science – delaying important discoveries, robbing patients of a better future and missing a golden opportunity to fuel our economic recovery from Covid-19. Such deep cuts are incompatible with the Prime Minister’s own vision of the UK as a global science superpower.

Yet that is what the Government seems bent on doing through its plans to plug a funding black hole opened up by Brexit using money allocated to UK Research and Innovation – the Government funding body for UK science.

Long-lasting impact

I am deeply concerned that the Government’s plans will help create a perfect storm for research organisations like mine – The Institute of Cancer Research, London. We are already facing alarming cuts to grants from medical research charities because of the financial pressures caused by the pandemic. Combining that with falls in the research budget will be disastrous for UK science, with an impact lasting many years, if not decades.

The Government is proposing to fund the UK’s participation in the EU’s Horizon Europe Programme for scientific research through the existing budget for science. It is essential that the UK continues to be part of Horizon Europe so that we can participate in Europe-wide research and benefit from access to EU funding – but our contributions were always previously met through a separate funding pot for our membership of the EU. 

Raiding the £9 billion UKRI budget to pay for Horizon Europe threatens to leave a deficit of £1 billion or more in the budget for science in the UK.

Decades of investment

The UK’s scientific prestige has been on display in this pandemic and the importance of a strong science base has never been clearer. Our UK successes did not come about by chance – they were the result of decades of investment in science, and the gradual building of world-class infrastructure and teams.

UK scientists have made some of the seminal discoveries in the history of scientific and medical research worldwide – including revealing the double helix structure of DNA and pioneering the creation and use of monoclonal antibodies – both of which have revolutionised the biotechnology industry worldwide.

The UK has led some of the world's most important cancer discoveries

In cancer research, investment in science has allowed our scientists to lead in some of the world’s most important cancer discoveries. At the ICR, we identified many of the cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke and coal tar, provided the first conclusive evidence that the basic cause of cancer is damage to DNA, and discovered many cancer-causing genes. 

We uncovered the function of the thymus in the immune system – laying the foundation for modern immunology and cancer immunotherapy. And our researchers led clinical trials in modern radiotherapy which have changed clinical practice on a global scale.

We also developed various important chemotherapy drugs and more recently have become the world’s most successful academic organisation for drug discovery – identifying 20 drug candidates since 2005, 11 of which have progressed into clinical development.

We discovered the prostate cancer drug abiraterone, which over the last decade has transformed treatment for many hundreds of thousands of men worldwide. And our work underpinned the development of olaparib and other PARP inhibitors which became the first cancer drugs targeted against inherited genetic faults. Olaparib is now used to treat ovarian, breast and prostate cancer.

The charity sector needs support

At the ICR, around 18% of our income comes via UKRI, and the proposed cuts could be hugely damaging to us.

Funding Horizon Europe is expected to cost the UK £1 billion or more this year, rising to £2 billion annually in the years following. If the Government pushes ahead with its intention to meet this cost through the current allocation to UKRI, the resulting cuts to science could wipe a fifth and potentially much more from the ICR’s public funding.

This would have an immediate effect on our current research to develop new treatments and threaten our ambitious plans for the future.

This is on top of the devastating impact that Covid-19 is already having on charity funding for research. Over a quarter of our funding comes from other charities such as Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Now. Cancelled fundraising events and shop closures mean that the sector as a whole faces an estimated £1 billion drop in income over the next three years. 

We’re grateful that the Government has awarded the ICR £4.2 million to help us as a specialist research institution to plug some of the charity funding gap. But overall, charity-funded research has not received the support it desperately needs from the Government, and the sector’s vital ability to fund future research continues to shrink.

Delaying advances for cancer patients

Yet research organisations need more funding, not less, to help them cope with the many direct effects of the pandemic on the ability to carry out research. During the first lockdown, we were forced to close labs and stop opening up new clinical trials. Even now, our scientists are working under strict safety regulations which constrain their research. Last autumn, ICR scientists predicted that the pandemic would delay advances for cancer patients by almost 18 months – and that was before new virus variants caused the latest shutdown.

It’s not just lost time. Cuts would break-up research groups and result in the permanent loss of a generation of talented scientists from research – which could take decades to restore, if ever. I am especially concerned about the impact of funding cuts on the development of PhD students and early-career researchers.

The perfect storm

Our scientists are doing everything they can to adapt, and research is pushing on, but these further threats to funding are creating the conditions for a perfect storm which risks capsizing cancer research.

The UK Government has been vocal about its ambition to make the UK a global science superpower and to harness research and innovation to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19. The UK’s science base is one of the most important drivers of economic growth. Every £1 invested in university research generates a further £1.60 in private investment.

Cutting science spend now will thwart our economic recovery and set us back by years. If the Government wants to ensure the future health and wellbeing of the UK, it must honour its commitment to reach an overall research spend of 2.4% GDP by 2027 – and that means increasing science spend now, not decreasing it. Investing more now is the only way to safeguard the long-term health and prosperity of the UK and to create a better future for people with cancer. 

UPDATE (15 May 2021)

Since this blog post was published, the UK Government has announced £250 million of extra funding for the science budget and that a further £400 million – previously earmarked at the Spending Review for 2021/22 to support government priorities and build new science capability – would be used to help plug the research funding gap opened up by Brexit. The announcement has averted catastrophe for UK science for the current year and was rightly met with relief in the research community.

However, the immediate funding plan is still not very transparent. Moreover, science needs a clear long-term plan. We need urgent clarity on how the UK’s £2 billion membership of Horizon Europe will be funded in future without cutting into current science budgets. And importantly, medical research charities still face an unprecedented funding crisis due to Covid-19 and we haven't yet seen much Government support to plug the gap in funding this has created.

The US has recognised the importance of science with huge boosts to the budgets of several research agencies. The National Institutes of Health alone has received an additional £9 billion – bringing its yearly budget to £51 billion overall and dwarfing the UK’s current health investment.

If the Government is serious about making the UK a global science superpower, it must increase research spending, and make the immediate, medium and longer term plans clear and sustainable to the research community – or risk the UK permanently losing our scientific edge.


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