UK academic research could lose out to cheaper alternatives in rapidly developing countries, such as India and China, warns a report from Universities UK published today.
The policy document from the body that represents higher education institutions, takes the form of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis.
It concludes that while the UK faces increased competition from the global market, it is well placed to take on that challenge because of its good track record and wealth of expertise.
But NHS bureaucracy, lack of continuity due to the different funding processes adopted by the various research councils, and comparatively low pay, which makes it difficult to attract suitably qualified clinical staff, all threaten the UK’s pole international position in the research arena.
New government priorities could also undermine the basic research agenda predominantly carried out by universities.
The time lag between discoveries in basic science and the development of treatments has prompted a demand for research that produces more rapid results.
Drug companies are looking elsewhere to carry out clinical trials in a bid to cut costs, and state funding now favours research that can be translated into practical changes in NHS policy and practice, says the report.
The government has announced key priority research objectives and boosted its funding for scientific research. These funds will also be ring-fenced, which should help to ensure long-term planning, says the report.
The government has also pledged £682 million to the Medical Research Council by 2010/1. And the Department of Health will be funding the National Institute for Health Research, set up in 2006 to control distribution of research monies, to the tune of £992 million in the same time frame.
But at the same time the emphasis on applied research may put the squeeze on basic research, particularly other disease areas not on the government’s list, and limit the opportunities for "blue skies thinking," says the report
And the future rate of growth of NHS funding is likely to be less than it has been over the past decade. This could affect the collaboration between the NHS and universities for the 11 biomedical research centres, established at the end of last year.
Professor Sir Andrew Haines, who chairs Universities UK Health and Social Care Policy Committee, said that universities were currently responsible for most of the healthcare research carried out in the UK.
Exciting opportunities lay ahead, including the potential for international collaboration and commercial advantages for researchers.
But he warned that basic research initiatives needed to be protected. “In order to ensure that advances in basic science drive the development of effective new interventions, and that the NHS delivers those interventions to patients, it is essential that the full spectrum of health research is adequately funded,” he said.
Testing times: UK health research in a global marketplace.