A study commissioned by three leading scientific institutions has demonstrated substantial financial and social benefits from investment in medical research.
The report, commissioned by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Academy of Medical Sciences, focused on the returns from UK investment into research in cardiovascular disease and mental health. It found that, for each pound invested in cardiovascular disease research by the taxpayer or charity donor, there was a stream of benefits equivalent to earning 39 pence each year forever. Mental health research generated benefits equivalent to 37 pence per pound invested each year forever. The study also found that public and charitable funding of medical research encouraged greater investment from the pharmaceutical industry.
The year-long study focused on results of the investment in research over the period 1975-1992. It was carried out by a consortium involving the Health Economics Research Group at Brunel University, the Office of Health Economics and RAND Europe. The research involved the development of a methodology to calculate the health and GDP (gross domestic product) gains from investing in medical research.
The research was led by Professor Martin Buxton from the Health Economics Research Group, who said: “Estimating the returns on investment in medical research is notoriously difficult. This is partly due to the time it takes for research to filter into measurable health benefits. We looked at the value of health gains, once the cost of healthcare had been taken into account, and gains to the UK's national income (GDP) from medical research.”
He went on: “Our aim was to generate realistic estimates of the economic impacts of medical research. The methodology we came up with should help to assess the returns for different disease areas. However, this was never intended as a one-off exercise, and we hope our results will stimulate more work in this important but neglected area of research.”
The study showed that there is a time lag between research expenditure and eventual health benefits of approximately 17 years. It also showed that reducing this time lag would improve economic returns. The study has raised further questions, including whether returns on investment differ outside of the time frame studied, or whether returns remain the same, increase or differ depending on the area of research funded. More research is needed to answer these questions.
Data were gathered from UK research funders, including the MRC, Department of Health and Wellcome Trust, to work out total investment in the two chosen disease areas. Evidence-based clinical guidelines, from NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), were used to estimate the UK's research contribution to interventions in these fields. 46 different interventions to treat or prevent cardiovascular disease were analysed, for example aspirin, beta blockers and smoking cessation, while the study for mental health used evidence on six such combinations. Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY), estimated by NICE to be worth around £25,000 each, were used to measure the quantity and quality of life gained from a health intervention.
Professor Martin Roland, the chair of the UK Evaluation Forum Working Group said: “This work will now help us to ask many more searching questions about the areas in which we invest in medical research. It throws into relief the wider importance of investment in medical research for economic growth as well as for social and health benefit.”
Jon Sussex, Deputy Director at the Office of Health Economics added: “In addition to ways of improving people's length and quality of life, medical research benefits the UK economy. The UK is richer as a result of medical research, as well as healthier.”
Jonathan Grant from RAND Europe said: “The findings demonstrate how important the time lag between basic research and health gain is. The quicker research is translated from bench to bedside, the greater the rate of return. Our study provides empirical support for the strategy to increase funding for translation research in the UK and around the world.”
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz FRS FMedSci, Chief Executive of the MRC, said: “The report provides a fascinating insight into the substantial benefits of medical research. A key message we can take from the findings - particularly during the current economic downturn - is that supporting a wide portfolio of research is very important for future patient and wider economic benefit. It can be hard to see the full potential of research at the outset, but this study shows that investment at an early stage can pay very healthy dividends further down the line.”
Sir John Bell FRS PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “When stripped down to pounds spent and pounds saved it is important that we are able to demonstrate the substantial benefits of medical research to healthcare and the economy. Knowing that investment not only leads to the enrichment of patients lives but also the state of the economy will help to justify continued support during this time of financial uncertainty.”
Peter Hollins, Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: “As the biggest funder of heart research in the UK, we have always believed in its value. This study lays out in black and white the striking fact that every pound people generously donate today continues to benefit all of us long into the future.”
Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: “We very much welcome the findings of this study. Research is one of the most important weapons we have to tackle the immense challenges that mental illness presents to our society, not least because mental health problems are strongly implicated in most of the major physical diseases we are fighting too.”