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Health Research Analysis 2014: the who, what, where of health research spending

Medical research is vital: the public knows this – more people give money to medical research than to any other charitable cause. Now we can see how this funding, and research funding via taxation is being used to support research from bench to bedside.

“It’s great to see the complementarity between charitable and government funders; this underlines the fact that funders are thinking strategically about where their money can be put to best use, to encourage research that will lead to better lives for patients.” Aisling Burnand MBE, AMRC chief executive

What is the health research analysis?

The latest health funding analysis from the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) looks at the research funding landscape for 64 charity and public funders. Fifty-two AMRC member charities’ funding data are included – which amounts to £1.2bn (95%) of the £1.286bn invested by AMRC members overall in 2014.

Using the Health Research Classification System (HRCS) to classify biomedical and health research grants across the UK, this latest analysis provides a detailed picture of UK health research funding and shows how funding from charities and the government complement one another. Over 17,000 projects are included in the analysis, representing £3bn of spend in 2014.

Why does it matter?

Charities are increasingly seeking opportunities to develop partnerships and collaborations in order to fund high-quality research that makes a difference to patients. And in order to collaborate, funders need to know where potential partners are active.

And it’s not just stimulating opportunities to co-fund, understanding the areas of research across which multiple funders operate will also inform strategies, identify areas of potential underinvestment and enhance the relationship between public and private R&D, whereby ‘£1 of public funding will give rise to an increase in private funding of between £1.13 and £1.60’. 

What’s in the report?

This is the third report analysing data from the largest medical research public and charity funders in the UK, and brings together the most comprehensive evidence to date of the who, what and where of health research spending.

It includes data from 52 of our members – from small and large funders (investing between £16,000 and £613m in research, and representing 95% of AMRC members’ funding). These charities fund essential health research into diverse areas of health and disease from early stage underpinning research through to disease management and the provision of health services. 

It illustrates how research investment increased significantly from 2004 to 2014 (p20 figure 1). The funding analysed increased by over a half (58%) in 10 years, with most of this increase concentrated between 2005 and 2009. Spending has been maintained in the last five years, but growth has been much slower (7.3%), implying a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of only 1.4% since 2009/10.

Certainly for medical research charities operating in the wake of global economic downturn, while spending is maintained, growth is hard to come by. Data from NCVO’s 2015 Civil Society Almanac  bears this out, showing that the overall charity sector’s income and expenditure was ‘running to standstill’ in 2012/13 and remains at a level below the financial peak of 2007/08.

The report presents strong evidence that funders are strategically re-prioritising activities that will speed up the translation of discoveries from bench to bedside:

Proportion of combined health spend by research activity for HRAF funders

Comparing the picture in 2004 with that in 2014 for the Health Research Analysis Forum (HRAF), while the amount of funding has increased across all the research activities, the proportion of total funding for underpinning (-9.7%) and aetiological (-5.2%) research has decreased. The proportion of investment into research for the translation of discoveries into new treatments has increased – with increases in detection and diagnosis (+4.7%), treatment development (+3.5%) and treatment evaluation (+1.1%).

Complementarity of charity and public funding

Funders have complementary research activity profiles, from discovery to translation, implementation and health services research.

Distribution of research activity funding by charity or public funder

Funding of direct research (rather than infrastructure) from the 52 charities in the report totalled£793m (39.1%), and the combined public funders contributed £1.23bn (60.9%).

Looking at the types of research activity, charitable funders provide nearly half of all funding in aetiology, detection and diagnosis, and treatment development – reflecting their mission to understand the causes of diseases, and investigate new treatments and promote early diagnosis. Here they are complementing the funding from the research councils – which are significant investors in both aetiology and basic research (classed as underpinning) across all health areas. Other government funders (DH, CSO, DSCHR, HSCNI, NC3Rs and IUK) have a stronger focus on treatment evaluation, disease management and health services research.

Funding essential health research

Distribution of combine spend by health category by charity, research council and other government funders

Many charities have a focus on a particular disease, and so we see charity funding in cardiovascular and cancer research is particularly strong, reflecting the great number of charities and their significant investment in these areas. For example, charities support the majority of funding for cancer (£299m, 74%), primarily by Cancer Research UK (84%, £252m) although 12 of the 48 medium to smaller charities also have an exclusively cancer-based portfolio. Similarly 60% (£82.5m) of all cardiovascular funding is by charities, primarily by the British Heart Foundation (86%, £70.8m).

Looking at 2005 to 2015 (p 46), the health area with the largest growth as a proportion of overall spend was infections research (+2.4%), which could signify increasing emphasis on tackling antimicrobial resistance.

Research on mental health also increased as a proportion of overall spend (+1.5%), indicating the growing importance of investment in mental health in recent years. Adding to this, a new mental health research charity, MQ:Transforming Mental Health, was established in 2013 which seeks to drive forward the development of mental health research in the UK.

Recent changes in policy to direct more funding towards dementia are not yet represented in the 2014 data, but should become evident in future analyses.

What can we do with the findings?

One of the ambitions of the project was to make the dataset available to others to perform further analyses. An anonymised dataset will be made available on request alongside the report, with the aim to publish the full dataset in time.

These additional data will enable us to dig deeper into the raw data and explore areas of particular interest to medical research charities. This will help inform funding strategies and our understanding of the funding picture for the essential research charities fund.

Collaboration between charities, as well as public funders, is valuable in a challenging funding environment and using this analysis to identify areas of shared expertise can only serve to enhance an already effective ecosystem of public research funding that attracts up to an extra £1.60 of private funding for every £1 spent by public funders. 



Malayka Rahman-Amin (not verified)
Alzheimer's Society
20 August 2015

Brilliant summary Sara - really useful. Thank you.