Popping the bubble
A recent report from innovation foundation NESTA suggested the existence of a ‘biomedical bubble’ that had caused research expenditure in this area to grow disproportionately. Our executive chair Professor Fiona Watt takes a closer look at the claims.
I enjoyed reading The Biomedical Bubble. The authors observe that in common with most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, UK Government funding for research with the objective of improving health has grown over the past decade. Many countries have identified human health as the area they most want to address, for the reasons set out in the report. However, I think we should look more carefully at the claim that our share of the research councils’ expenditure has seen “a 75 per cent increase in real terms”.
The reality is that the MRC’s expenditure was approximately 15% of total council expenditure in 2005, and was 19% in 2016  , which is hardly a bubble. As you can see from the chart below, the MRC is not the only research council to receive increased investment since 2004. It is also evident that there was a peak in our funding in 2015 – this was due to a one-off allocation of £150M for capital equipment from the Department of Health. Since then, the MRC’s share of allocations has returned to relatively stable proportions of 19.5% (2016), 19.8% (2017), and 18.7% (2018).
The report states that overall public spending on health research has increased by about £1 billion since 2004. However, the largest increase in investment has been in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which supports clinical and health services research for patient benefit. Innovate UK, which supports business innovation, and Research England have also been beneficiaries. These new funding streams are highly complementary to the MRC, connecting our research more effectively with the NHS and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
A further claim is that “more than half – 52 per cent – of health research is in basic biomedical science, while a further 22.7 per cent is devoted to translational biomedical science”. This draws on the excellent Health Research Classification System (HRCS) reports, which objectively analyse public and charity health research spend. It is important to note that ‘basic’ research, as defined by HRCS, includes studies of the social, environmental and behavioural factors influencing health and informing prevention. It does not simply cover fundamental lab-based research.
I am proud of the fact that the research we support spans a wide range of areas from engineering to population health, and that we work in partnership with other funders and councils in UKRI to effectively integrate these areas. As an example, data science is a field of strategic importance for us – which we recently backed with £40M investment to create the national Health Data Research UK. This builds on previous funding totalling more than £90M from EPSRC, ESRC, the British Heart Foundation, Wellcome and others. About one-fifth of non-profit basic medical research explores upstream causes of illness. Funding for more applied prevention research is, we would agree, still too small, but has trebled in the UK from £29M in 2004 to £101M in 2014. We’ve convened a partnership of a dozen research funders to establish the UK Prevention Research Partnership which aims to increase this investment further and implement new interventions in practice.
The report’s fourth chapter “How biomedical science exacerbates regional inequality” explores the important policy question of regional balance. It highlights correlations, but does not show causation, or even the direction of causation. At the MRC, we find there is a clear case for regionally structuring some research – for example Health Data Research UK, which needs close relationships with regional and devolved health systems to do its research and speed its contribution to healthcare improvement. But in other areas a single investment, or an open, merit-based competition for funds, seems appropriate. We would welcome some stronger analysis in this area. We should not ignore the fact that pharma and biotech are attracted to co-localisation with strong science and clinical clusters. But for many industrial sectors being outside the golden triangle is a distinct advantage.
We look forward to taking part in the NESTA debate on health research. Good research systems need a clear view of what is happening, based on good policy analysis, peer-reviewed evidence, and transparent consultation with the research community and the users of research – all of which we will continue to do within UKRI. It is essential for the health and wealth of the UK that investment in biomedical research is not a bubble, but subject to sustained growth.
The latest ONS data (which includes expenditure in 2016).
Details for one-off capital allocations (between 2013 and 2015).