By Rachel Burden, Research Data Analyst, AMRC

Published: 2 August 2017

Charities spend £1.6bn on medical research in the UK each year, but what impact does this research actually have?

Answering this question has always been somewhat of a holy grail for funders. It is essential so that charities can show supporters the great work they are doing with the generous donations but also for internal evaluation so that charities can be sure they are funding the right kind of research. However, it is challenging. On average it takes 17 years to develop a new idea into a medical product available to the public. Furthermore the pathway of getting an idea from bench to bedside is incredibly complicated with often a large number of different research teams involved, picking up the research at different stages along the pathway. So how can medical research funders really measure the impact of their research?

One way is to look at the very direct outputs from the research. In July AMRC published their animation and report ‘Making a difference: Impact report 2017’ which looks at the many different ways in which the funding from medical research charities has an impact on patients and the wider society. The report uses data from 40 different charities to show that together our members contribute to five different areas:

With 5287 awards, 40 different charities and ~64,000 different outputs there was a vast amount of analysis for us to get our excited data heads stuck into. Around half of these outputs were publications but we also see many other ways in which researchers can have an impact including; 1600 research tools or methods (e.g. cell lines, reagents), 250 IP and licensings, 40 spin out companies and over 1000 influences on policy (e.g. participation on an advisory committees).

Tools and method types:

IoP types:

Using the sector-wide picture for policy discussions

Already at AMRC we have been able to use many of these numbers to help with discussions in the policy world. For example, the data shows that as a result of the charitable grant, researchers have been able to bring in further investment of £2bn from other sources including industry, academia, government and other charities – adding to the ecosystem of medical research. 34% of this further funding was from European Union grants; a fact that has been very useful for our Policy team when talking about Brexit and the importance of continuing access for the UK medical community to EU funding programmes and collaborative programmes.

Further funding map

Furthermore the data has also allowed us to show the partnerships between researchers and their next destinations, highlighting how essential it is that researchers are able to travel and work across the EU and UK.

The data is not only useful for Brexit discussions but also when showing the benefit to society and the economy in funding research. Even aside from the obvious benefits of research in getting new drugs, prevention activities or changing healthcare guidelines etc. there are many indirect benefits. For example, partnerships with industy or the creation of spin out companies and patents brings in money to the economy. Researchers engaging with the public informs them about upcoming research and can encourage more young people to move into science as a career.

Partnership sectors

How funders can use this information

This report doesn’t just help AMRC to represent the sector as a whole, aggregating also allows charities to improve internal processes by understanding researcher reporting patterns and to evaluate portfolios by comparison with other funders.

The graph below shows how the average number of outputs linked to different types of grants differs across outputs. So a grant looking into the cause of a disease will on average have 6 publications linked to it, whereas a grant focussing on disease management and care has an average of 4.5. This pattern changes for engagement activities where we can see that care grants have the highest number on average.

Being able to compare in this way could be really useful for funders evaluating their portfolios as it can help them understand the number and kind of outputs that may be linked to their research grants.

Another analysis compares the amount of time it takes for a type of output to be linked to a grant. To do this we looked at the average number of outputs compared to when they appeared in the lifetime of a grant. As is to be expected, some outputs were seen a lot quicker e.g. publications, partnerships and engagements tend to appear 2-4 years after the grant start date. Whereas outputs like patents, spin outs and medical products seem to occur a lot later.

Understanding when an output is likely to occur can feedback into what types of outputs that funders ask researchers to report on (saving precious research time) and how long after the award that they ask the researchers to report.

It’s not just about the numbers

As a data analyst, it hurts me to say this but actually the numbers and pretty charts are not always the most important part… rather the story behind them is what brings the numbers to life. Embedded in the report are 40 case studies, one from each charity which provided data. These highlight the real-life benefits charity-funded research brings to patients; from publishing work that gives researchers worldwide a new target for treatment development; to instigating new guidance that will improve the safety of patients. We know these case studies will be useful to explain outputs and emphasize the impact that charities are having.

Indirect collaborations between charities

The Policy Institute at King’s have published a report alongside ours, using the same dataset. Their report, commissioned by us at AMRC, gives a different angle by highlighting the indirect collaborations between charities. Below the linkage map shows how researchers funded by different charities produce publications that are linked to more than one charity; showcasing the interconnected web that is research and proving that we are not all just working in silo.

Linkage map of associations between different AMRC member organisations, derived from PIs co-attributing publications with the same PubMed IDs to different funding awards (i.e. accounting for duplicated outputs). [Funding organisation colour code: Pink – general medical research, teal – cancer research, lilac – cardiovascular research, orange – neurological research, lime – specific focus research]. See report here.

The value of data sharing

It is only by sharing data that we are able to showcase the impact of our sector and highlight the benefits of medical research. The data is essential for us all to understand the sector and for policy work, but also for helping funders with portfolio evaluation and understanding when and what outputs may be linked to grants.  So thank you to all the 40 charities who are included in these reports for sharing their data with us!