Time to Prioritise Medical Research in Wales

Angela Burns MS outlines what the Welsh Government needs to do to cultivate a thriving medical research environment.

Research and innovation make a vital contribution to health and social care.

Discoveries made by dedicated researchers in laboratories across the UK translate into improvements in prevention, diagnosis, treatments, and care for millions of people all over the country. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has focused the world’s attention on research in a way we have not seen for decades. We have placed our hopes for a brighter future on companies and individuals with skills and experience unfamiliar to many of us.

This extraordinary emphasis on finding a vaccine for coronavirus in record time has brought home the importance of medical research and Wales played an important part in the search for a vaccine.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine was approved following a global trial, in which Welsh participants and healthcare professionals played a key role.

The benefits of medical research aren’t just felt in health and social care, a thriving medical research environment has the potential to support a thriving economy.

Careers in research and the discoveries these researchers uncover can attract massive wealth and talent to Wales. Between 2015 and 2019 medical research created 980 jobs in Wales.

It has been three years since the Reid Review was published and… Reid’s recommendations have gone largely unimplemented.”

Despite these opportunities, Wales does not meet its potential in medical research and therefore we do not reap the benefits. Wales achieves significantly less than its share of UK and global research funding and only receives 2.4% of the UK research spend

In January 2017, the Welsh Government commissioned Professor Graeme Reid to investigate Government funded research and innovation in Wales whichreported in June 2018with three recommendations regarding Welsh Government’s future investment in research. 

  1. A new Welsh Research and Innovation Office in London to increase the visibility and influence of Welsh research. 
  2. An additional fund of £30m a year, to incentivise researchers to win greater funding from business and from outside Wales. 
  3. A single coherent brand for its research and innovation funding to increase the visibility and impact of Welsh Government-funded research and innovation in Wales.   

The Cross Party Group on Medical Research (CPGMR) was formed in 2018 and undertook an extensive inquiry to find out how the conclusions of the Reid Review impacted the medical research environment in Wales and how we can capitalise on the skills and innovation within the Welsh research environment. 

This inquiry spanned two years and took evidence from over thirty stakeholders including third sector, patients, researchers, industry, universities, and local health boards. 

The findings of the Group were disappointing. It has been three years since the Reid Review was published and – with the exception of the establishment of the Welsh Research and Innovation Office in London – Reid’s recommendations have gone largely unimplemented.

In response, the CPGMR set out seven recommendations to the Welsh Government. 

1. Increased funding for universities

The CPGMR inquiry found that most stakeholders were deeply concerned about low levels of Welsh Government funding across the research pathway. Respondents pointed out that funding on research is significantly less in Wales than in other UK nations.

They raised the concern that the effects of this created barriers to inward investment in research, as it gives the impression that the Welsh Government does not have a strong commitment to medical research excellence.

Quality-related funding is annual, un-hypothecated research funding awarded by the Welsh Government to higher education institutions. This funding supports university researchers to improve resources and equipment to compete for other funding streams.

For universities to thrive and attract funding nationally and internationally, the Welsh Government must increase its offer to Welsh universities.

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2. Increase funding for Health and Care Research Wales (HCRW)

Currently, the annual budget of HCRW stands at £42 million around 3.2% of the £1.3 billion announced for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Genomics England in the UK Spending Review in November 2020.

When compared to Wales’ population size in relation to England, HCRW’s budget is less than 60% of that of NIHR.

It is important that the Welsh Government provides a significant uplift to HCRW funding to bring it at least in line with DHSC/NIHR funding relative to our population.

3. Work to replace and guarantee other funding streams following Brexit 

The UK leaving the European Union could hit Welsh research hard as research in Wales has historically relied on EU funding.

Reid points out that the historic dependence on EU funding can be replaced with Welsh Government money which will support success in UK-wide funding competitions and by attracting higher levels of business investment.

“Our inquiry found that careers in research are currently unstable and that there are significant barriers to development.”

4. Incentivise collaborative working across the medical research environment.

Our inquiry revealed that improved collaboration is necessary if Wales is to succeed in improving its medical research environment.

Because of Wales’ small size, there is a limited pool of research expertise. Collaboration will help to avoid duplication of efforts and support pooling resources where possible.

But for this kind of collaboration to happen, improved data linkage is desperately needed.

The Reid Review recommends that the Welsh Government should incentivise and reward collaboration between universities in Wales, Welsh public bodies, businesses, and charities; and advocate for improved cross-UK and international collaboration. 

There are examples of the Welsh Government encouraging and enabling collaboration. However, our inquiry revealed that more action is needed to support research collaboration within Wales between research partners as well as with Europe and internationally.  

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5. Support research careers in Wales

A vital aspect of a flourishing research environment is the opportunity for talented researchers to develop and establish themselves. However, our inquiry found that careers in research are currently unstable and that there are significant barriers to development.

The Welsh Government must address this to attract the most talented researchers to Wales and encourage them to stay and develop their careers here.

The Ser Cymru programme encouraged talented researchers to come to Wales and support our research environment and this must continue.

“Medical research does not currently have the impact that it should in Wales’ health service or on the Welsh Government’s policies.”

The Welsh Government must also consider improving research within the NHS and ensure that clinicians have protected time for research.

6. Improve patient and public involvement

Patient and public involvement makes research relevant. It helps define what’s acceptable to participants and supports ethics committees particularly on sensitive or controversial issues.

However, our inquiry found that patient and public involvement is inequitable across Wales and this must also be addressed. 

7. Make sure that research informs policy

We identified a gap between medical research findings, the health service, and policymakers. This means that medical research does not currently have the impact that it should in Wales’ health service or on the Welsh Government’s policies.

The Welsh Government should work with Universities and other research institutions to create effective forums for knowledge transfer between researchers and policymakers. 

As Chair of the Cross Party Group on Medical Research, I am calling on the Welsh Government to recognise the importance of a thriving medical research environment, to understand and commit to dismantling the barriers that hinder the development of this sector, and to support the development of the skills and opportunities within medical research in Wales.

The full report is available here: The Next Steps for Wales to Achieve its Potential in Medical Research

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Angela Burns is a Welsh Conservative Member of the Welsh Parliament for Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, Shadow Minister for Health and Social Services and Chair of the Senedd Cross Party Group on Medical Research.

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