Future of Scottish medical research 'under threat' from Covid funding slump

The future of non-Covid-19 related medical research in Scotland is under threat from a funding slump due to the pandemic, a leading cardiologist has warned.

A researcher at work at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research at the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
A researcher at work at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research at the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Attention has been so diverted towards the pandemic that future breakthroughs in treatments for other conditions are at risk, said Professor David Newby, British Heart Foundation Chair of Cardiology at Edinburgh University and cardiologist at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

“I don’t want to downplay the Covid situation, it’s terrible. But we have to keep perspective on this, and there are some real concerns that all resources are dragged away from us to be thrown at Covid,” he said.

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"Of course resources need to be thrown at it to get us all back to work, but there is a real imperative to make sure we don’t neglect what is on our doorstep and that actually the biggest causes of ill health are not this virus, they are things like heart disease.”

It comes as the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) revealed that 40 per cent of charity-funded early career scientists in the UK have considered leaving research over funding concerns since the pandemic broke out.

Charities in the UK face a predicted shortfall of £310 million in research funding because of Covid-19, the AMRC said.

Led by charities including the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, the association is calling on the UK Government to support charitable medical research by introducing a Life Sciences-Charity Partnership Fund.

The AMRC survey of 523 scientists funded by 72 charities found that half of respondents said their funding will expire by the end of 2021, and of these, two thirds have been unable to secure funding to take them to the next stage in their career.

Scientists outside of the London area were disproportionately affected.

“This is a real threat, and there are many advantages above and beyond just keeping people in work,” said Professor Newby.

"It will be a legacy issue that we will see in five to ten years’ time if we don’t act now. If we halve the workforce that we’re training, then who is going to be the next scientist to make a breakthrough? They’re not going to be in that job, they’re going to be doing other things. We’re not going to bring the next generation of academics through.”

Aisling Burnand, Chief Executive of AMRC said: “Funding uncertainties mean that without clarity from the Government and a commitment to support for three years, we risk losing a generation of talented young scientists who would otherwise have become the UK’s next research leaders.

"Ultimately this could have a severe impact on several decades of research crucial to finding new ways to diagnose, manage and treat diseases including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, rare diseases and neurodegenerative disorders.”

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive at the British Heart Foundation, added: “The Government must act now and honour its commitment to UK science. The case is indisputable - investment in science will protect a generation of young researchers, fuel the UK’s economic recovery and ensure patients have access to the new treatments that they desperately need.”

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