Spotlight on research funding

Protein research laboratory

With the new government focused on reducing public spending, we explain why it’s vital to maintain levels of research funding.

We’re pressing the UK government to support the research sector. Research has saved countless lives; with proper investment, it will save many more.

From discovery research in the lab, to population studies and clinical trials in patient volunteers, doing world-class research is expensive. At the BHF, thanks to those who make donations, including Heart Matters readers, we can afford to invest an average of £100m a year in research.

Research funding figuresBut that won’t be enough if the government fails to maintain levels of spending on science. Organisations like the BHF work within the university sector, so we are dependent on the government to fund world-leading universities.

In 2015/16 the government is spending £5.8bn on science. Of this, £4.7bn is for day-to-day funding and has been ring fenced – this means the government has pledged to not reduce the amount. The rest is for capital spending on investment and projects to create growth. Most of this (£859m) is also ringfenced.

The day-to-day funding goes mainly to the seven UK research councils and the four UK higher education funding bodies. It also includes the Charity Research Support Fund, which covers overheads so that money from charities like the BHF can be spent directly on the best scientists, groundbreaking research and clinical trials.

This is worth £198m a year in England and proportional amounts are available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where funding comes via different bodies.

Cutting-edge research

World-leading scientists such as Andrew Newby, BHF Professor of Vascular Cell Biology at the University of Bristol, depend on research funding at every stage of their careers.

Professor Newby’s team is at the forefront of work to identify people at risk of heart attack, and is developing new treatments to prevent stents and bypass grafts becoming re-blocked following angioplasty and bypass surgery.

Research funding is the lifeblood of everything we do

Professor Andrew Newby

“Research funding is the lifeblood of everything we do,” he says. “Without this generous research funding environment in the UK, my career would have been completely different. I would probably just be teaching students – and not particularly well, as without research you can’t teach students the cutting edge.”

During his career, Professor Newby has been funded not just by the BHF, but by government-funded research councils, specifically the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Michael Schneider, BHF Simon Marks Professor of Regenerative Cardiology at Imperial College London, says that while BHF funding is vital to UK universities – supporting more than half of cardiovascular research – it is not enough.

“I’m acutely aware that the BHF cannot support the entirety of cardiovascular research in this country, though its contribution is immense and irreplaceable,” he says.

“Medical research in the UK is made possible by a robust partnership among all the potential funding sources. In my own case, a collaboration with Imperial’s drug discovery unit was partially made possible by the MRC.

We’re finding new compounds that protect human heart muscle, grown in the lab, from death and damage. This could lead to drugs that reduce the size of heart attacks in people. Government funding for science is clearly vital.”

Long-term view

During his career, Professor Newby has seen the importance of long-term research. “It is easy to over simplify the process of developing a new therapy,” he says. “Most people don’t realise it is based on a long period of growing understanding.”

Amount spent by the BHF on researchFunding research is expensive because of the many disciplines involved, and because it is impossible to predict which lines of investigation will be successful.

“If you take the example of statins to treat heart disease, it is based on a century of research across many different disciplines.”

Professor Newby explains. “If you tried to restrict funding, no new treatments like this would ever happen.”

Some of the most important discoveries in cardiovascular research have come from unlikely places. “The moral is, if you are trying to be prescriptive about which projects you fund, you would always get it wrong,” he says.

Britain has proved itself the most cost-effective country in the world for science research. This is thanks to the long standing Haldane principle, where the government identifies overall priorities then the scientific community selects specific projects to be funded based on scientific merit, through a robust peer-review process.

Funding science benefits Britain as a whole, Professor Newby says. “I think everybody realises we need to be competitive in the world. To do that you need high-end technology and you need to support discovery science.

World-leading research: Professor Andrew Newby’s career

Professor Andrew NewbyProfessor Newby’s research career spans 42 years. He celebrated his 40th anniversary by cycling around the Isle of Wight to raise money for the BHF. Last year, he raised further funds on the London to Brighton Bike Ride.

Professor Newby’s many achievements include discovering the role that metalloproteinases, a group of enzymes, play in the smooth muscle cells that create blood vessel walls.

These cells have an important role in healthy blood vessels but are also involved in stent restenosis and bypass graft disease. His group is now studying the effects of different metalloproteinases, so that new drugs can be developed.

It is also exploring why some stents block (restenosis) in the months or years after an angioplasty, and why some bypass grafts re-block after surgery. The team helped create drug-releasing stents to reduce rates of restenosis, and developed a new type of stent that sits outside blood vessel walls. This unique concept has been taken up commercially and is currently going through clinical trials.

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