BLOG: What can medical research charities do to ensure they are protected from the faltering economy?

Having worked in the medical research charity world for many years, I am keenly aware of the funding landscape and its challenges. In 2014, £1.3bn was spent funding vital biomedical research by medical research charities. Most of this was sourced from public donations, but a good proportion will have come from statutory and grant-making sources. All charities, no matter what their cause, have a basic aim to improve the lives of their beneficiaries. Health charities fulfil their aims by funding research into new therapies and treatments, from basic lab work through to full clinical trials. Accessing and distributing funding to high impact researchers is the key to success.

Charities like the British Lung Foundation who work in areas far less popular than better known conditions, face a particular challenge to increase funding streams. Respiratory disease has long been the ‘Cinderella’ of diseases: just £28.4m was spent by government on respiratory research in 2014, compared with £3bn total spend on medical research.

Despite this, we are moving forward. By forging new collaborations between government, businesses and charities, we will be able to combine our efforts to support innovative research, which will pioneer new interventions to improve outcomes for people with respiratory disease.

It’s heartening to read that medical research is the most popular charitable cause in the UK with 7.6m people donating to medical research charities. With so much generosity towards medical research generally in the UK, should charities be worried about funding after Brexit?

After the referendum result on the European Union was announced, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), of which BLF is a member, stated that the UK health and medical research community intends to remain as partners and collaborators with the European Union and its Members States, to advance our knowledge and understanding of health. Lord Sharkey, Chair of the AMRC, called on government to: “engage in a constructive dialogue with the medical research charities sector on the future of EU funding for research in the UK and the regulations and policies that affect the medical research environment.”

According to the Royal Society, the UK is the fourth largest recipient for funding from the EU for medical research. The Government assures us that it will honour funding for EU programmes, like Horizon 2020, in the UK until 2020 and the Treasury has guaranteed to back any EU funded project, signed before this year’s autumn statement. But there are unique challenges brought on by the uncertainty of funding opportunities after this cut off period.

If the Prime Minister invokes Article 50 next year, the negotiations will not be completed for at least another two years. Since most charities plan five to ten years ahead, sometimes longer, we are already planning our research priorities post 2021.

Medical research is international in its nature. Researchers are often university-based and universities benefit from EU funding for research. Take, Asthma UK’s European Asthma Research and Innovation Partnership (EARIP), a pan-European research network to further collaborative working. This brings together researchers, universities and EU charities to find the best treatments for asthma. It may follow that after 2020, EU collaborations and joint funded projects will be harder to establish. For medical research charities, we must find a way to ensure that funding between countries for urgent medical research will continue; we cannot allow plans to leave the EU to hold up research progress. Charities like BLF are forging links with philanthropists and foundations, to ensure the sustainability for research projects going forward.

One area where this model is already working is mesothelioma research. Earlier this year, a new National Mesothelioma Centre at Imperial College was set up, with a £5m UK government grant. In November, this was matched pound for pound by a remarkable philanthropic donation from the Victor Dahdaleh Foundation. This game-changing donation will fund a new mesothelioma research network, managed by the BLF. World class research teams, initially in Leicester and Papworth Hospital, will be secure for at least four years. Thanks to the Government and a single individual’s Foundation, we are now moving towards an era of real hope for mesothelioma victims.

Foundations and individual philanthropists are already becoming a greater focus for charities. As a sector that relies on many external income streams to fund our charitable aims, we must look beyond traditional funding areas and seek to forge stronger relationships with big business, individuals with high net worth and foundations.

With collaborative working and securing these income streams, we can protect our funding and continue our work to improve life for of our beneficiaries in the future.

Dr Penny Woods is CEO of the British Lung Foundation

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