Something different – Government funding for Parkinson’s research

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Here at SoPD we try to remain politically neutral.

That said, we do have a vested interest when it comes to political events and their impact on government research funding for Parkinson’s disease (or simply medical research in general).

In the wake of the recent BREXIT vote in the UK and the poll-defining victory of Mr Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, there have been many in the research community who are expressing concerns about the future of research funding.

In this post we thought it would be interesting to have a look at US and UK Government research funding and where things may be heading after the election of Mr Trump and the BREXIT vote.


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US Federal R&D spending over time. Source: Business insider

What is the current situation for federal research funding in the USA?

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the US federal government appropriates almost $140 billion per year to research and development. That is a remarkably big number (it is more than the entire GDP of Hungary!).

The grandeur of this number, however, hides a disturbing fact. That $140 billion is down from a 2010 peak of about $160 billion (in constant dollars – inflation adjusted). And this reduction in funding has had trickle down effects.

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The NIH headquarters in Maryland, USA. Source: NPR

The National Institute for Health (NIH) is one of the largest funders of medical research in the world. In 2015 it had a budget of $31,381 million. More than 83 percent of their budget goes to more than 300,000 research personnel at over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in the USA and around the world (Source: NIH). Few other research funding institutions wield the kind of power that the NIH has.

Again, however, the impressive numbers hides a secret.

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NIH funding from 2003 – 2015. Source: FASEB

As displayed in the graph above, from 2003 to 2015, NIH funding from the US government dropped by 22% of its capacity to fund research due to budget cuts, sequestration, and inflationary losses.

In very real terms, medical research funding from the US federal Government has been falling – and this started long before the global financial crisis.

What is the current situation for Government research funding in the UK?

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Research funding in the UK. Source: Keith’s Blog

The UK spends approximately £25bn per year on research.While not as impressive as our cousins across the pond, that number is still a large chunk of change. Approximately 1/3 (£7.98bn) comes from the UK Government. And again that sounds like a lot of money, but here is the terrible truth of the matter:

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Science research funding as a % of GDP. Source: Scienceogram

At a time where the population is ageing and requiring more assistance due to conditions like Parkinson’s disease, we are spending less (based on GDP) on research than most of our neighbours. Yes, we are still recovering for the global economic crisis (9 years and counting, dear bankers), but the trend for the UK in the graph above is of some concern. Especially when you consider that back in the 1980s the UK was spending over 2% of GDP on research:

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The difference in % of GDP spent on research between 1985 and 2007. Source: Keith’s Blog

For academic research, there are seven Research Councils that receive funding from the Government’s Science Budget. Each year, they invest around £3 billion in research, covering the full spectrum of academic disciplines. This arrangement may change shortly, with all of the seven councils coming together under one umbrella: Research UK (but that is an entirely different controversy – click here for more on this).

A total investment of £26.3 billion has been planned by the Government between 2016/17 to 2020/21 (Source: Gov.uk), but this may well change in the wake of BREXIT. All eyes in the UK are focused on the Autumn budget statement on Wednesday 23 November. This will be the first confirmation from Theresa May’s government as to their stance on research funding.

In addition to Government funding of research, the UK research community has benefitted considerably from belonging to the EU. Between 2007 to 2013, the UK contributed nearly £4.3bn towards EU research projects, BUT it received nearly £7bn back over the same period. That £2.7bn excess was equivalent to more than £400m in research funds a year. By leaving the EU, this enormous stream of funding is now in jeopardy.

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The UK is the leading country in terms of number of projects won from Horizon 2020. Source: LSE

We remain fully paid-up members of Horizon 2020, the EU’s eighth Framework Programme for funding research and innovation, and as the graph above shows we are one of the most successful countries in the EU with regards to projects being awarded funding. The Horizon 2020 scheme has a total budget of just over €70 billion for funding research until 2020. But beyond that…

Critically for researchers, the lack of clarity in the UK position with the EU leaves the potential for international collaborations up in the air.

So what is the outlook for the US?

The good news is that historically new Republicans presidents generally spend more on research than democrats:

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New president spending on research. Source: ChicagoPolicyReview

The bad news is that much of that increase is predominantly on the defence research side of things (Click here to read more on this – the original study).

Mr Trump has given little indication regarding his thoughts on research funding. And it is difficult to get any real sense of where things may be going based on the mass media news outlets, which seem to be more interested in scandal rather than in depth investigative journalism.

Mr Trump has been quoted as saying:

“Though there are increasing demands to curtail spending and to balance the federal budget, we must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare, and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous. We must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.”

Adding, however:

“In a time of limited resources, one must ensure that the nation is getting the greatest bang for the buck. We cannot simply throw money at these institutions and assume that the nation will be well served.”

Source: Science Debate

Mr Trump appears to be intent on bringing the US federal deficit under control. But he has also indicated plans for cutting taxes (for all incomes), eliminating the estate tax, and providing a significant child care credit. He believes that the increased economic activity resulting from these cuts would counteract that drop in tax income. Such policies do not bode well for research funding (an easy section of the budget to reduce).

With regards to neurodegeneration research, during the election campaign Mr Trump told a New Hampshire audience that Alzheimer’s was a “total top priority” for him. So there may be some hope there for closely associated Parkinson’s disease (we can hope).

We will simply have to wait and see.

And what is the outlook for the UK?

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The winning team in the BREXIT vote. Source: Telegraph

The UK’s public finances have worsened by approximately £25 billion since the March Budget (source: Independent), with the impact of the BREXIT vote apparently being a major contributing factor. This hole in the finances is going to require the Government to borrow more and spend less, which may well impact research funding in the up coming Autumn budget statement. And the Autumn statement is causing very real concerns for many in the research community (Click here for a recent editorial in the journal Nature).

To counter any reduction in the levels of Government research funding, incentives could be put in place for commercial/industrial resources to step in. The pharmaceuticals industry accounts for 48% of all corporate research funding in the UK, and much of this funding is at the University research institute level.

With regards to the huge pot of EU funding that could be lost, the UK could ‘buy-back’ into the EU research programmes as an ‘Associated Member’. But this approach would have several major drawbacks:

  • No political say into the formation and direction of future research funding programmes.
  • A 12% contribution of funds requirement for just a 16% gain of competitive funds.
  • Any changes to UK immigration policies at any stage would cause major disruption to future programmes.

Obviously clarity is required. We will wait to see what the Autumn statement brings.


EDITORIAL NOTE: I have tried to remain unbiased here, ignoring much of the negative comments in the media regarding Mr Trump’s proposed policies and the BREXIT related scaremongering in the UK. It is however difficult to sort through the mess and differentiate fact from opinion. This post was never intended to be a post, just a personal investigation of the state of play in research funding for Parkinson’s disease. But I decided to share it here for general interest (and I hope it was of interest). It is a very serious matter.


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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