Skip to main content

Cancer Research: Funding Gap

Volume 835: debated on Monday 29 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the analysis by Cancer Research UK projecting a £1 billion funding gap for cancer research.

The Government remain fully committed to tackling cancer by investing in cutting-edge cancer research. We invested almost £122 million into cancer research in 2022-23 via the National Institute for Health and Care Research, while UK Research and Innovation invests around £200 million annually. We work closely with research funders, industry, the NHS and charities to drive earlier diagnosis and improved therapies. We are confident that the Government’s unwavering commitment will lead to continued improvements for cancer patients.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, particularly in relation to his final comment about long-term investment. He will be aware that around 62% of all publicly funded research on cancer comes from the charitable sector. The last few years have been incredibly tough for the sector in raising money. As an example, over the past five years Cancer Research UK has seen a 19% drop in real terms in the amount it can invest in cancer research. It argues that we are in danger of losing about £1 billion of investment into cancer research over the next ten years, and has called for a commission on sustainable biomedical research task force to look at how government, the charitable sector and other funders can collectively fill that gap. Are the Government sympathetic to that?

Yes, entirely, and I thank the noble Lord for raising this very important issue. I pay tribute to the very important and good work done by Cancer Research UK. If its analysis—I am familiar with its basic thrust—has a flaw, it is that it makes an assumption about an ongoing linear link between the number of cancer sufferers over the year and direct government and charity sector support. This assumption neglects to bring in, first, the close work done between the Government, businesses—through business co-funding—and others, and, secondly, the growing, extensive, important research that is relevant to cancer but not specifically associated with it. In particular, many of us are familiar with the work done on radiology in AI. It is not cancer-specific but is certainly likely to help the cause of improving cancer outcomes.

My Lords, according to Cancer Research UK, the US Government spend five times as much per citizen on cancer research as the UK Government. Why do the Government spend so much less?

I am not familiar with this analysis, but it is very difficult to understand exactly how much is spent on cancer research, for the reason I gave earlier: so much cancer research is in areas adjacent or relevant to cancer without being specifically tagged as “cancer research”. For instance, in October 2023 the Prime Minister announced a new £100 million fund for the AI life sciences accelerator mission, which will have beneficial outcomes on cancer but is not tagged directly to cancer.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister receives regular representations from potential investors in medical research in the UK about what they need from the Department of Health and Social Care. Will he share with the House, and with his neighbour on the Front Bench, their key asks from the UK medical system and how he ensures a cross-government approach to entice in the maximum amount of investment?

Indeed: it is so important to have not only a cross-government approach but a cross-sectoral approach. The Government work closely with academic, industry, charitable and other stakeholders. The crux of this is the healthcare missions of the Office for Life Sciences. The OLS cancer mission aims to show leadership in oncology innovation by developing further the approach first successfully used in the Vaccine Taskforce. Among other things, it has implemented the UK cancer research strategy forum, which brings together bodies of all kinds that are active in cancer research to ensure that they are effectively co-ordinated in today’s research and in future directions.

My Lords, UK citizens willingly volunteer to allow excellent initiatives such as UK Biobank, Genomics England and Our Future Health to generate databases of health data that are excellent for cancer research. These databases are a sovereign UK asset funded by taxpayers, yet we allow the IP to leak abroad without any meaningful contribution to Treasury coffers. When will the Government implement an effective commercialisation policy to ensure that this leakage of wealth is stopped and directed to help fund cancer research?

I cannot comment directly on leakage of either information or wealth. I noted with great interest the latest report of the Tony Blair Institute that was publicised over the weekend, which argued that we should put our healthcare data on a commercial setting for this purpose. I am not familiar with any individual allegation of leakage or undue movement of data out of the country, but I am willing to look into it and take it up with ministerial colleagues.

I declare my interest as chair of Cancer Research UK. One of the most important international research partnerships in cancer science is the Cancer Grand Challenges, which bring together CRUK, the US Government, the French Government, the Dutch and the Spanish, but not yet the British Government. I invite the Minister to consider joining the club and using the March Budget as an opportunity to stump up the membership fees.

I once again pay tribute to Cancer Research UK. It is a tremendous organisation doing great work. I will look into the scheme the noble Lord brings up and take it up with ministerial colleagues.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, will know, Cancer Research reported in its 2023 researcher survey that while 98% of respondents said that collaboration with EU-based scientists is important, 79% said that since Brexit it had been harder to begin new collaborations with EU-based researchers and scientists. What steps are the Government taking to prioritise collaboration between the EU and the UK in this area, especially with compatibility with the EU clinical trials regulatory framework?

As we have just rejoined the Horizon programme as an associate, I am pleased to say that our collaboration with friends and colleagues in the EU will pick up considerably. I very much look forward to answering a Question in this House tomorrow on that exact subject.

My Lords, the Lord O’Shaughnessy review concluded that the UK is falling behind its peers in the internationally competitive marketplace for commercial clinical trials. Many in the research and entrepreneurial community are concerned that our most innovative researchers are going abroad. What is being done to persuade them to stay in this country?

The Government and academic institutions countrywide are very focused on making sure that the country remains an attractive place to conduct research. We have four of the world’s top 10 universities in this country—a significant research base. We believe and hope that we are an outstanding place to come to live and work as a researcher. There is no doubt that we will need a significant influx of researchers if we are to meet our scientific ambitions as a nation. We continue to monitor our generous points-based immigration scheme to make sure that we can continue to attract the brightest and best.

My Lords, much of the research, including cancer research, is carried out by universities. For that, the university has to spend money to build up infrastructure. That money mainly comes from the quality-related research or QR funding and the CRSF funding, the charity research support fund, both of which have declined, particularly as charity research funding increases and the government support does not. Is it the Government’s intention to increase QR funding in line with inflation and the CRSF?

It is certainly the Government’s intention to maximise the results of conducting cancer research in universities and elsewhere. I think particularly that we do not give enough emphasis to our collaborations with business; in that respect I point to our work with BioNTech, which aims to provide 10,000 patients with immunotherapies by 2030, or the NHS-Galleri trial. As to the specific instance of the QR increase, I will happily write to the noble Lord.