Associate Feature: A healthy investment
The discovery of penicillin, the first use of diagnostic MRI scanning, and research leading to the global use of statins to prevent cardiovascular disease, all happened in Scotland.
Medical breakthroughs of international importance continue to take place regularly because of the research and development (R&D) environment on these shores. In Scotland, world-class universities, the NHS and medical research funders come together to create an ideal ecosystem for this work.
Charity funding is a critical part of the mix. Medical research funding by charities is estimated to account for 46 per cent of all third sector and public research funding in Scotland, with BHF Scotland, the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK among the biggest donors. This vital work leads to improved diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of diseases.
But the benefits go further: charity-funded medical research is also an engine of the Scottish economy.
“Medical research is not just a public good, it’s an economic investment in Scotland’s future,” says David McColgan of BHF Scotland. “The raw numbers on jobs and growth speak for themselves.
“But we must fund it properly. If we don’t, there is a real danger that Scotland’s hard-won prestige as a research centre will fade and that the economic benefits it brings will diminish.”
A report by Scotland’s leading economic research centre the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) spells out the value to the economy of charity investment in medical research. It supported more than 7,400 jobs in Scotland in 2019. Without this injection of charity cash, says the report, the Scottish Government and other public bodies would have to boost funding in the medical research sector by 73 per cent.
At a time when the Scottish economy is under sustained pressure, charity-funded medical research has never been more important. The Fraser of Allander Institute has found that the sector is one of the most impressive in Scotland at driving economic growth and creating jobs.
Every £1m spent on medical research by charities generates £1.33m of Gross Value Added for the Scottish economy – putting it fourth out of 97 sectors, ahead of the construction, retail and hospitality industries.
It supports more jobs per £1m spend than many other sectors, including food and drink, construction and financial services. Every £1m spent supports 31 jobs, almost double the Scotland average of 17.
The FAI report explains: “Recipients of research funding purchase goods and services in order to undertake their research. This generates activity in their supply chains and across the whole of the Scottish economy.
“As new methods and technologies are discovered, there are knowledge spillovers into the public, private and third sectors which boost productivity and economic growth.”
But charity finances have taken a hit because of the pandemic. Due to temporary shop closures and a drop in donations, charity funding for medical research has fallen.
In 2019, £226m was ploughed into the medical research sector by charities but in 2020 that had dropped to £208m.
That represents 575 jobs lost in just one year.
Fundraising is yet fully to recover and BHF Scotland is concerned that the sudden shortfall could have lasting consequences for Scotland’s medical research sector unless the Scottish Government can help.
McColgan says: “We fear any fall in investment could lead to long-term shortages in highly skilled medical researchers here – impacting Scotland’s ability to make the breakthroughs of the future and to maintain its reputation as a world leader in research and development.”
To protect this vital part of Scotland’s economy, BHF Scotland wants the Scottish Government to look at the level of funding it provides. The Scottish Government invests more than a third less per capita on medical research than the UK Government in England. To end that disparity, help protect the sector, and prevent an exodus of talented, highly skilled staff to other countries, BHF Scotland wants funding for the Chief Scientist’s Office, (which disburses research funding) to be increased by £42m.
It is completely unacceptable that there is such a significant gap in this funding between Scotland and England, given funding donations have already been hit by the pandemic - Sue Webber MSP
The charity has powerful cross-party support in the Scottish parliament from MSPs who share its deep concerns about the potential threat to life-saving research and its wider economic impact.
Paul McLennan MSP for the SNP, noting that funding for medical research in Scotland is still behind England in per capita terms, says: “Government funding of medical research follows similar patterns to medical research charities, with much of the funding supporting work in universities and the NHS. This funding supports the creation of highly skilled professionals who are significant economic actors in their region.
“With more investment, Scotland can attract more talented researchers and create greater stability to those seeking to build a clinical research career in Scotland.
“The pandemic reduced the levels of funding from charities and other funders which have traditionally supported clinical research careers.
“Career funding is crucial in allowing healthcare professionals to develop the skills to undertake research in the NHS.
“We can attract these highly skilled professionals to Scotland, bringing with them their research skills and increase NHS Scotland’s clinical capacity.”
Sue Webber MSP for the Scottish Conservatives held a member’s debate on the issue in June and has called for “ambition” from the Scottish Government.
She tells Holyrood: “This sort of medical research is absolutely crucial in helping to save lives and ensuring that Scotland is at the forefront of the latest approaches towards treating diseases.
“It is completely unacceptable that there is such a significant gap in this funding between Scotland and England, given funding donations have already been hit by the pandemic.
“Unless they urgently address this funding gap, current and new jobs in the sector will be put at risk, and damage will be done to the economy.”
The Scottish Lib Dems’ health spokesperson and leader Alex Cole-Hamilton says: “This is a field in which Scotland is a genuine world-leader but we must be careful not to allow these advantages to slip away.
“Charity funded medical research has an enormous impact, both on global health but also on the Scottish economy.
“The Scottish Government need to work with key partners to ensure that talented researchers are encouraged to set up shop in Scotland and make sure that key government programmes such as the Chief Scientist’s Office are properly resourced.”
Maggie Chapman, MSP for the Scottish Green Party, calls the findings “very concerning” and stresses the importance of “the funding and the support needed to attract, retain and train people with the right skills and expertise”.
She adds: “Medical research has been instrumental in transforming the life chances of billions of people around the world, and must be at the heart of the fairer and better society that we want to build.
“We cannot allow the sector to be another victim of the chaos and austerity that so many are suffering through. Our capacity for world-leading research has taken years to build, but so much of that could easily be lost if researchers do not see a future here.
“The role of charities has been vital, but there is also a need to consider the role and impact of governments in Scotland and across the UK, particularly at a time when charitable donations are falling.”
The FAI report notes that the life sciences sector, which includes medical R&D, has since 2015 been identified as one of six ‘growth areas’ by the Scottish Government – sectors in which Scotland has an advantage. The Scottish Government is committed to supporting the sector to help build growth and productivity. Scotland is seen as one of Europe’s “major contributors” to life sciences, employing more than 14,000 people across 423 organisations with a combined turnover of £2.8bn.
For BHF Scotland, there is no time to lose. McColgan says: “Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in medical research has been built over decades but could be lost in just years. The global medical research environment is highly competitive and if there are not the jobs and opportunities for career development in Scotland, then researchers will go elsewhere or leave science altogether.
“As the Fraser of Allander research shows, this sector is a generator of high-quality employment and a critical contributor to growth, but it must be properly funded. Any extra funding, it is clear, will pay handsome dividends.
“We call on the Scottish Government to shore up this vital sector as an investment in a healthier, more prosperous future.”
This article is sponsored by the British Heart Foundation.
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