Future of UK’s health research at risk, report suggests

Immediate action is needed to stop the UK from losing its strength in health research, experts have warned.

A new Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) report details key threats to the county’s research, and the steps needed to protect it.

The experts say health research saves and improves lives, for example by producing breakthroughs such as sequencing the human genome and developing life-saving vaccines.

It also drives the economy, they argue, with some data suggesting every £1 of public investment in medical research delivers a return equivalent to around 25p each year, forever.

The report calls for Governments across the UK, public and charitable funders, higher education institutions, industry, NHS leaders, patients, carers and the public to work together to secure a sustainable future for research and deliver maximum health benefits for people everywhere.

It concludes that UK health research is in danger of being taken for granted and sets out what needs to be done to improve and future-proof it.

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Fellow of the AMS and co-chair of the report, said: “Our report is a wake-up call.

“Despite the weighty evidence of the value excellent health research brings to society, we risk losing the benefits.

“At a time where we face health challenges such as pandemics and climate change, we cannot be complacent.

“This report is as much directed at me as it is at NHS boardrooms and industry leaders: there are actions I will be taking, as Principal of the University of Edinburgh and lead member for Health for Universities Scotland.”

The report, produced by 30 experts from across the UK, finds that people must be placed at the heart of the UK health research system.

It also suggests the research potential of the NHS should be maximised, and that the true cost of health research should be adequately covered.

Additionally, the report called “Future-proofing UK Health Research: a people-centred, coordinated approach”, sets out that talented people should be enabled to develop careers that span sectors.

Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, Fellow of the AMS and co-chair of the report, said: “The UK’s life science and health research base is strong, but the system supporting it is fragile.

“If left untended, our health research system will continue to fray at the edges, leaving it in a poor position to provide health, wellbeing, and economic benefits.

“With the klaxon sounded, it is clear we need a coordinated and people-centred movement now to strengthen the life-saving asset that is our health research system.”

Dr Rasha Al-Lamee, who contributed to the report, spends 70% of her work-life running clinical trials on how to relieve the symptoms of heart disease and 30% of her time seeing patients.

The clinical senior lecturer at National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, and cardiology consultant at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: “For me, being a clinical academic is a privilege, with the benefits extending far beyond my own job satisfaction to the patients I treat and work with and the culture of my workplace.

“To avoid detrimental effects on patients and healthcare workers like me, the sector needs to make it easier to hold these dual careers in a secure and flexible way.”

In a separate report, the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Select Committee highlights concerns over the reproducibility of scientific research.

It notes that despite the Government’s increased focus on research and innovation and the largest-ever increase in public spending in research and development, the integrity of some scientific research has been called into question because of difficulties in reproducing claimed findings of experiments or analyses of data.

This has led to concerns over what is sometimes referred to as a “reproducibility crisis”, according to the report.

The MPs emphasise the need for a comprehensive and rigorous assessment of the scale of the problem in the UK and which disciplines are most affected.

In particular it calls for an assessment of the impact of deploying Artificial Intelligence – and other increasingly complex software – on reproducibility in research.

The report recommends the establishment of a sub-committee of the Committee on Research Integrity focused solely on the issue.

Committee chairman Greg Clark, said: “Scientific progress requires transparency – being able to reproduce analysis to check research findings are robust.

“With the annual publicly-funded R&D budget set to reach £20 billion next year, it is especially important that findings stand up to scrutiny.

“But there are concerns that many scientific findings are difficult or impossible to replicate, with AI posing new challenges to transparency.

“We call for a clearer focus from research funders, publishers and academic institutions to ensure that research is transparent and reproducible.”