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A healthy return on public medical research spending

MRC Chair Donald Brydon discusses the Spillover Report, published this week in BMC medicine. Spillover measures the wider economic gains from public investment, both government and charity. The report was funded by the MRC and led by Professor Jonathan Grant, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London. It considers 30 years of data from 1982 to 2012 and provides an up to date and accurate picture of the effect of public funding on the UK economy.

Donald Brydon

Donald Brydon

Public funding for research, although not generous, has led to scientific advances that impact on millions of lives and have delivered extraordinary health gain. It also has a very healthy effect on the economy.

For every £1 we invest in medical research, we see a 17 per cent annual return to the UK economy, indefinitely.

That’s before you take into account the monetised benefits of a healthier population. Include that and the rate of return rises to somewhere between 24 and 28 per cent.

The Spillover Report, published this week, demonstrates the effectiveness of government and charity funding for research and its power to stimulate investment from industry. Drawing on 30 years of data, the researchers calculate that for every ‘public’ pound invested in medical research, the private sector invests a further 99p into the UK economy. The effect is nearly immediate with 44 per cent of that investment occurring within a year.

The MRC has supported discovery science to improve human health for over 100 years and is internationally acknowledged to have been instrumental in some of the most important medical advances of the last century.  Examples include the randomised controlled clinical trial, the structure of DNA, MRI imaging and monoclonal antibodies.

These four landmark advances now underpin multi-billion pound global industries.

The power of UK public funding of research to stimulate investment in the economy is partly down to its synergy with industry. The UK’s world-leading research excellence is regularly cited as a major reason for a thriving life science sector, gaining the country returns from an industry employing over 180,000 people and turning over £56bn in the UK.

Although previous estimates had put the rate of return at 30 per cent, these were based on data that was US-centric and increasingly out of date. The new estimates in this report are lower, but much more reliable. The rate is still incredibly significant, particularly when we consider that it improves not only the UK economy, but the health of millions.

I am persuaded by the growing weight of evidence that shows public, charity and private sector funding strategies are highly complementary, and that we each need to work closely together and be adequately resourced if UK success in science is to continue.

The fact of the matter is that scientific and technological advances need both public and private sector support. Discovery science often has no immediately obvious commercial opportunities but is needed at every step in translation. The process of turning discoveries into new products is not a linear, but an iterative process between pure research and applied development. Public funding means that this research is still pursued for the benefit of human health.  As a result, industry finds a rich seam of ideas and experts in the UK, all the reasons it needs to invest here again and again.

At a time when Government is considering how best to deploy finite resources, I suggest that funding research is an exceptionally good way of leveraging inward investment, creating new employment and, importantly, improving the health and quality of life for UK citizens.

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