Charity CEOs warn of damage to UK research

A crisis in charity research funding caused by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to weaken the UK’s reputation as a world- leader in science, put thousands of research careers at risk, and delay the pace of life-saving discoveries, according to charity leaders. Writing in the Lancet, the CEOs of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and Cancer Research UK warn that without Government support, life-saving progress for patients is at risk.

Citing the significant contribution made by medical research charities to the UK’s research landscape – £1.9 billion in 2019 alone – the charities warn that a projected fall in fundraising revenue could cause irreparable damage to UK research, leaving the UK’s position as a home for world- leading science in peril. Since the start of the pandemic, medical research charities have been forced to make dramatic cuts to their research budgets, with the BHF reducing its research spend by half this year, while Cancer Research UK has already made a cut of £44 million to its research portfolio over the same period. The Association of Medical Research Charities members are projecting a shortfall in research spend of between £252 and £368 million in 2020/21 alone. With over 17,000 scientists being

supported by charity funding, they also warn that thousands of research jobs are

at risk. A survey, cited by the CEOs, of over 500 charity-funded early career researchers found that four in ten are considering leaving research due to funding concerns since COVID-19 hit the UK.

Once lost from research, this generation of scientists would take decades to replace, inevitably slowing the pace of scientific progress in the UK.

The charities’ leaders caution that it is patients who will most keenly feel the effect of this slowdown, as the vital discoveries which help to save and improve lives are held-up. They also warn that a reduction in charity funding will have a knock-on effect in reducing private investment in the UK’s research eco-system, with a recent worst case scenario model predicting a £1.3 billion reduction in private investment leveraged from charity funding. Despite the importance of medical research being more apparent than ever, charitable medical research has not benefited from the Government’s charity support package.

Members of the AMRC are now calling for Government to commit to a Life Sciences- Charity Partnership Fund before irreparable damage is done to the sector. The Fund, backed by eminent scientists, industry leaders and politicians from all parties, would see Government investment in charity research to bridge the shortfall in fundraising income until funding levels can return to those seen before the start of the pandemic.

GMC calls for medical training evolution

Medical education and training must adapt to equip doctors for the changing and complex demands of the health system, says the chair of the General Medical Council (GMC). Dame Clare Marx told attendees at the GMC’s virtual conference that the pandemic has been a catalyst for positive change – despite the huge disruption it has caused.

She said it has highlighted the need for doctors to have generalist skills to cater for patients with multiple health problems in a holistic way. Medical training pathways in the UK too often focus on doctors becoming specialists as they progress through their careers, rather than supporting a more generalist approach.

Calling for more flexible training, Dame Clare said: “While this increased specialisation has been crucial in treating single diseases, it has not always supported patient care. To meet today’s needs there

must be a more systematic approach, looking at the patient as a whole. It must be embedded throughout a doctor’s career, from medical training to the end of their careers by continuous professional development. “The GMC will work alongside medical

schools, Royal Colleges and the governments of the UK to consider how this is delivered. The prize will be doctors with both the specialist skills they need and the foundation to adapt and learn.”

Dame Clare also highlighted the success of introducing the interim foundation year posts (FiY1) for newly-qualified medical graduates to bridge the gap between education and practice. It follows the GMC’s move in 2020 to approve an additional 550 training locations to allow doctors to count work towards their training progression. The GMC’s National training survey found that those who undertook the interim foundation posts felt more prepared for their


foundation training than those who did not. She said the GMC will look at locking in these benefits for future graduates. Dame Clare said: “At the heart of this (the pandemic) is the ability to respond to the changing context in which doctors work. As the pattern of health and disease in the population evolves, so too must doctors’ skills. “That requires education and training that prepares doctors for the realities of practice today. It also requires a genuinely inclusive approach, that gives all doctors the best possible experience of medicine throughout their careers. And it requires us all to be flexible, adapting as the situation demands. We at the GMC are committed to playing our part in delivering this. But we can’t do it alone. Genuine change will only come as part of a system-wide effort. So, let’s seize the opportunity we have now, so we can continue to deliver for the patients we serve.”


Award boost for global initiative to advance deep tissue imaging

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has awarded $1m (£750,000) to a team from UCL and the European Synchotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), as part of a global initiative to advance deep tissue imaging to provide new insights into health and the nature of diseases such as COVID-19. Professor Peter Lee (UCL Mechanical Engineering) and Professor Rebecca Shipley (UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering) together with Dr. Paul Tafforeau (ESRF) are leading the imaging research project, which will enable cellular-level imaging anywhere in whole organisms, including human organs. The imaging will provide new insights into health and the nature of diseases. Results from feasibility studies have shown that it can reveal damage caused by COVID-19 on human lungs in unprecedented detail, offering more information on the effects of the virus. Prof. Lee explained: “Being able to see within our intact bodies to capture dynamic processes with cellular resolution will also help us to overcome a wide range of challenges, such as understanding how osteoarthritis affects our joints or understanding infection in disease.”

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