Published: 3 July 2023 (originally published on FST on 26 May 2023)

By Dr Catriona Manville, AMRC Director of Research Policy and Dr Mehwaesh Islam, AMRC Research Policy Manager

Earlier this year saw the publication of Sir Paul Nurse’s much awaited Independent Review of the Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Organisational Landscape. With 29 recommendations, the review provides a detailed analysis of the UK’s complex RDI system and identifies “significant” problems with the RDI landscape, some of which are described as “long-standing and serious”. There is a lot in there for the charity sector to digest. The review’s recommendations may not be ground-breaking (the sector has long been making the case for many of the suggestions) but are all sensible and would make a massive difference to the RDI landscape if as a package they can be achieved. Sir Paul identifies 10 important attributes for a successful RDI landscape, including financial sustainability, high research quality and agility, cross-sector permeability, a skilled workforce, good research culture and strong international collaboration. We made our own submission to the Review highlighting strengths and issues of the system from the perspective of medical research charity funders. 

The vital role of medical research charities in the UK’s diverse RDI landscape

We believe that the UK has a uniquely diverse and collaborative medical research sector, within which charities are a key strand. It is great to see the review recognising this and highlighting long-term and large-scale charity funding as a valued component of research support in the UK.  Given charities’ mission to deliver patient benefit alongside their investment in medical research, they are naturally interested in how and where research is done, how to create the right environment for research to thrive and to be able to attract the best talent.

So, what do charities bring to the R&D ecosystem? Charities are working tirelessly to improve the health of the population and to ensure that the UK research base is dynamic and productive by:

  • focusing on the priorities of patient and the public;
  • tackling areas of unmet medical need and neglected conditions; and
  • accelerating health impact, by identifying the barriers to innovation, investing in underpinning enablers and de-risking research so that other funders, including industry, can engage (ensuring additionality).

Sir Paul calls for increasing the diversity of research performing organisations in the UK RDI landscape. Charities value this diversity while investing strategically in a range of settings, to achieve the best possible outcome for their donors and supporters. The independence and agility they have allows them to take advantage of the different strengths each brings. These settings range from UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to dedicated research institutes and virtual networks. Charities identify gaps in their field and seek to address that.

Sir Paul warns of the danger to UK RDI due to underinvestment in the sector by successive Governments and calls for more funding for RDI. We believe that an increase in Government support for a stable, sustainable research base is crucial to leverage investment from external sources such as charities, international funders, and industry.

A stable and sustainable university research environment is essential to all stakeholders

The review highlights the issue of lack of ‘end to end’ funding in universities to fully support research activities. This results in research running at a deficit and universities cross-subsidising the cost of research activity, regardless of source of funding. Charity research funding is of course, a vital component of the research funding landscape for universities, providing some 12-14% of total research income in 2020.

Research funded by charities does not take place in isolation. We need well-funded basic infrastructure and equipment in universities and NHS settings so charities can continue to support excellent science in line with their mission. AMRC and our members appreciate the importance of university research sustainability in the UK to ensure that world class research can be conducted to deliver solutions and advances to healthcare. We continue to believe that there needs to be a partnership with charities, Government and universities to help ensure charity-funded university research is sustainable. The Nurse review recommends that charities and Government should work together to address the shortfall of the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) and discuss how to fund proper end-to-end research support. We welcome this call. We have long argued that the CRSF is vital in underpinning charity research in universities. Charities differ from other funders in the way they obtain their income and fund research. Charitable grants do not usually cover the indirect costs of research, because of the way that charities provide funding, taking account of their charitable objectives. The CRSF (and its equivalents in devolved nations) aims to give universities the flexibility to offset some of the indirect costs – estate costs and institutional support – not covered by charitable grants. In addition to financially supporting charity-funded research in universities, the CRSF is an important means to incentivise charities to fund research in UK universities. We would welcome discussion between Government, universities and charities, to review the partnership and ensure it is working as effectively as possible.

In conclusion, we share Sir Paul’s optimism about the future of science for the UK, and look forward to playing our part in the next steps.