Published: 30 November 2021

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

The last 18 months has been a bumper year when it comes to research policy announcements and Government reviews. The underlying ambition running through these policy documents is the Government’s vision to cement the UK’s position as a world-leader in science, research and innovation. This will require a sustainable research base. We recognise research sustainability is much wider than just financial but here we are focussing on one specific issue – the financial sustainability of charity-funded research in universities.

We support the principle that universities should aim for a sustainable research base

AMRC members appreciate the importance of research sustainability. After all, 87% of charity-funded research takes place in universities. We continue to believe that there needs to be a partnership with Government and universities to help ensure charity-funded research is sustainable. We have long argued that the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) is vital in underpinning charity research in universities. The CRSF aims to give universities the flexibility to offset the indirect costs – estate costs and institutional support – not covered by charitable grants. The fund is therefore critical to the sustainability and long-term stability of university-charity research in the UK.

There is no denying that a real terms decrease in the CRSF over the years means the fund is now falling short. The CRSF contribution has fallen from 28p for every £1 of charity investment in 2010/11 to less than 20p per £1 in 2017/18. By 2030 the CRSF is expected to provide less than 12p per £1 of charitable investment, less than half of what it represented in 2012. The current system is not ideal with tensions between what each player (charities, universities, and government) contributes threatening to risk invaluable research for patient benefit.

Exploring alternative options for partnership support

As sustainability looks to be re-emerging as an area of focus, we (the charity sector) need to be a part of these discussions. This is a complex issue with many different views and perspectives to take onboard. This is why earlier this year, we commissioned policy specialists Public First to undertake an independent scoping study, funded by Wellcome, to explore benefits and challenges of the current model of government support as well as other alternative options that may support the sector. Public First conducted a review of the existing literature, followed by interviews with a few stakeholders from Government, medical research charities, and universities to put together a report which we have launched this week.

What have we learned from the study?

One… all stakeholders value the current partnership approach. The principle of partnership support from government, universities and charities, which underpins the CRSF (first set out in the Science and Innovation Investment Framework) matters to everyone involved.

Two… there are no easy answers.  None of the potential alternative models explored received unanimous support. The current CRSF model may not be perfect but the alternatives do not necessarily solve the problems.

Three…there is a funding gap.  Over time, the gap between the charity and government contribution is growing, and HEIs are footing more of the bill.  The report concluded that ‘many of the issues with the CRSF are fundamentally issues of funding – it gets less in real terms, and this in turn limits the research outputs it can support. This is not a mechanism problem.’

Next steps for AMRC’s work on sustainability

Building on the report’s recommendations, we will be working with our members to articulate the reasons why charities support certain types of costs and not others and to highlight what charities do bring to the ecosystem – both financially and in kind.  For example, a key point that the study reinforces is that the UK is relatively unique in the amount of charitable contribution towards medical research compared to other countries. Public First briefly looked into how indirect costs of research are covered in some other countries. This raises some interesting questions which we hope to explore further.

In our response to the Government’s Spending Review, we called for the Government to continue to prioritise block grant funding to universities, and to maintain and boost the CRSF to safeguard charity-university partnerships. Following the report’s launch this week, we will be sharing it with key policy-makers involved in decision making around the CRSF. We hope that the findings from this scoping study can start the conversation with key stakeholders across HEIs, research charities and government. There is a need to build consensus to ensure all stakeholders fully understand each other’s positions and to develop a model that provides the partnership support that charities need, the predictability that universities need, and the visibility that government support for sustainability deserves. This is a thorny issue, but we need to get to grips with it to ensure that the UK achieves its ambition of becoming the science superpower we all want it to be.

So… let’s start talking.