Impact of COVID-19 on cancer research funding

Image of medicines to show Impact of COVID-19 on cancer research funding

Cancer Research UK has announced that the impact of COVID-19 on its income means it could be forced to cut £150m per year from its research funding.

As the funder of around 50% of all publicly-funded cancer research in the UK, cuts in Cancer Research UK funding will not only prevent future breakthroughs for people with cancer but will have a massive impact on scientists and research infrastructure that have taken decades to build.

Ultimately, this could set back the progress we have seen in survival for people with cancer.

Cancer Research UK working alongside the Association of Medical Research Charities, which represent over 150 medical research charities, is urgently asking the Government to work with them to develop a solution that will bridge the funding gap. They believe that collectively medical research charities are an essential part of the post-pandemic solution to rebooting the UK’s economy, ensuring that the UK is still on course to become a global science superpower.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, said: “Medical research charities like Cancer Research UK are a vital pillar of the UK’s life sciences ecosystem. We support thousands of scientists and world-leading research initiatives in all parts of the UK, all with the aim to improve the lives of people with cancer.

“We have been massively hit by COVID-19 as our fundraising efforts have been hugely restricted. We have been doing everything possible to limit the impact. But without a way to bridge this funding gap, we will have to make radical decisions about cutting lifesaving research, which will severely impact our vision of seeing 3 in 4 people survive their cancer within the next 20 years. Ultimately, it will be patients who will suffer the consequences, which is heartbreaking.

“It is imperative that the Government urgently works with medical research charities to come to a solution, so that decades of investment in UK research is not lost in a matter of months.”

Back in April 2020, Cancer Research UK had to make a difficult decision to cut £44 million funding across its research portfolio because of the pandemic. The re-evaluation of the charity’s financial position now raises the potential impact to £150 million of funding cuts per year while the charity recovers.

The charity is now preparing for a 30% fall in income in the 2020/21 financial year, with further losses in the next year, following temporary closures of its shops and major fundraising events being cancelled during the COVID-19 crisis. Coupled with an uncertain economic environment, this means even more difficult decisions about where further cuts to its life-saving research will need to be made.

To put these figures in context, cutting £150 million each year would mean:

  • A major contraction in the charity’s research infrastructure, such as our network of Centres and Institutes, with potential closure of some sites around the country
  • Thousands of early-career scientists left unsupported, and their ideas for beating cancer unfunded
  • Cancelling plans to fund new projects in the short term, including new clinical trials, holding back the development of new cancer treatments.

Cancer Research UK’s long-term investment in state-of-the-art facilities has helped create a thriving network of research at 90 institutions in more than 40 towns and cities across the UK. This spread of investment across different regions of the UK is also at risk at a time when the Government seeks to rebalance research investment across the UK.

Cancer Research UK’s work benefits patients everywhere and is also integral to supporting the Government in meeting their target of 75% of cancers being diagnosed at an early stage.

But the charity’s research also contributes to the thriving life-science industry here in the UK – a sector that the Government will be working closely with to support the post COVID-19 economic recovery. Protecting the life-sciences base and UK cancer research will be essential to bolster the economy at this challenging time.

Cancer Research UK has formed more than 40 spinout biotechnology companies, which have collectively raised around £1 billion in third-party investment over the years, supporting the UK life-sciences industry base. It also partners with UK pharmaceutical giants to ensure new drugs get to UK patients as quickly as possible through its clinical trial portfolio.

The Government has provided £750 million in support for charities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Cancer Research UK, like other medical research charities, is not eligible for this funding.

Karen Vousden, Cancer Research UK’s chief scientist, said: “Our world-class research, alongside that from other medical research charities, is the lifeblood that fuels the UK’s biotech engines and ensures our life-saving discoveries keep moving forward. Cancer Research UK is now facing devastating funding cuts, which will severely hinder the vital work that is carried out in our laboratories.

“Loss of funding opportunities will also risk an exodus of our best scientists to other countries and we are faced with losing a generation of scientists in the early stages of their careers. This will cause a severe contraction in our research talent and research infrastructure, which will be hugely detrimental to our ability to carry out the world-leading research that has dramatically improved our understanding and treatment of cancer. Cancer Research UK strongly supports Government aims to place science at the heart of its economic strategy, and medical research charities must form an integral part of that plan.”

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Cuts of this magnitude to Cancer Research UK’s research funding will have a deep and long-lasting impact on our vibrant life-sciences industry, a sector that provided science-led solutions to the pandemic, highlighting the need for us to keep this strong and intact. A loss of £150 million is the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of clinical trials going unfunded.

“Cancer Research UK has been an effective partner with Government and the UK life-science industry. But now we need support from our partners during the period of recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, to ensure we can continue our world-class cancer research for the benefit of everyone. Without that support we will have to make devastating funding cuts to our discovery and clinical research portfolio at a time when the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients has never been so great.”