News & Events

Research for health – how is funding changing in the UK?

Last Reviewed 29/10/2015

By Amy Hunter

The amount of money being put into health research, and what is funded, is changing in the UK. According to a recent report by the Medical Research Council (MRC) on behalf of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration the amount of funding going into research into health and disease has decreased over the last ten years. This is largely due to a fall in spending by pharmaceutical companies. On the other hand, the contribution from charities and public money (research councils, health departments) has risen faster than inflation. The numbers are impressive: according to the Association of Medical Research Charities  the MRC invested £845million in research in 2014, and the National Institute for Health Research invested more than a billion - £1,014million.

One of the strengths of research funding in the UK is that the various funding bodies between them ensure that a variety of research is supported. For example, science aimed at a fundamental understanding of disease receives a lot of support from research councils, while health departments support a wide range of approaches – with a focus on management of disease, and research into health services. The causes of disease, prevention and early detection receive particular attention from charities. Each of these steps is essential. Such is the ‘ecosystem’ of health research funding: the different bodies bring different skills and focus, and each contributes to the whole pipeline.

The sobering news is that the increase of funding from charities and public money is slowing down, quickly. The government is preparing to publish its latest spending review (when priorities for spending are made, and areas for cuts are identified). To try and protect health research funding from public money, a large group of charities made the argument to the Treasury that “cuts in one area (e.g. from health departments) can’t be compensated for by other funders”.

Turning back to the report and a more positive message. In order for scientific discoveries to be turned into new treatments or interventions to help patients, ‘translational’ research is needed. This is critical where few treatments are available, such as is the case for most rare diseases. The report shows that this kind of research is receiving more funding now than 10 years ago, and that the increase has outstripped inflation.

Finally, some of the finer detail in the report is worth a read. The authors did not look specifically at genetic or rare diseases, but the report covers some detail at how research funding is split among different disease areas such as cancer, infection and congenital disorders. The authors have attempted to assess whether the different disease areas receive a ‘fair’ amount of funding based on the impact the diseases have on people’s lives. This is a very difficult analysis to do, but their conclusions are interesting. Cancer receives the highest proportion of funding, but it has a similarly high impact on life expectancy and disability. Some areas appear to lose out (bearing in mind that this will always be an imperfect analysis). These include diseases affecting the blood or heart (including stroke); mental health; diseases related to the muscles/skeleton; diseases affecting the lungs/breathing; and diseases of the digestive system.

Whether or not the total ‘pot’ of money going into health research is enough, it remains important that all those providing funds ensure their money goes where it is most needed - into addressing the unmet needs of patients and their families.


This article was written by our Senior Research Manager, Amy Hunter. Please contact Amy if you have any questions or comments about this work. 

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