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  • Biomedical and pharmaceutical research are currently getting a rising share of publicly funded research investment despite plummeting R&D productivity
  • Around half of all health issues are rooted in social, environmental and behavioural factors yet these are being starved of research funding
  • Given this mismatch between fund allocation and where we know research can have the most impact on health, Nesta calls for a more balanced distribution

Nesta, the innovation foundation, is calling for a rebalancing of healthcare investment. Reacting to the publication of a new report ‘The Biomedical Bubble: why UK research and innovation needs a greater diversity of priorities, politics, places and people, Nesta is arguing for a more balanced distribution to align crucial social, environmental and behavioural determinants of better health outcomes.

“We know how important social, environmental and behavioural determinants of health are, so top level decisions about research priorities need to consider areas of health that are woefully underfunded but have a huge impact on the population.”

Halima Khan, Executive Director of Nesta’s Health Lab

For too long, investment of public money to underpin pharmaceutical and biotechnology research and development has been disproportionately large, whilst productivity - in terms of new treatments which have the biggest impact on health - has plummeted. Continuing to prioritise biomedical investment, when R&D investment is set to rise from 1.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP, risks unbalancing our innovation system, and is unlikely to deliver the economic benefits or improvements to health outcomes that society expects.

“The UK is on what we hope will be the cusp of the greatest surge in public and private investment in the science and innovation system for a generation and, with the launch of UK Research and Innovation, a radical reorganisation of its institutions"

Kirsten Bound, Executive Director, Research Analysis and Policy at Nesta

"This presents a huge opportunity to do things better, and not just to remake the existing system on a grander scale,” said Kirsten.

Nesta’s paper calls on the newly-created UKRI, to look afresh at priorities and issues of balance across the funding system in order to escape the biomedical bubble and realise the economic, social and health potential of extra investment in non-biomedical R&D.

“After decades of success, the biomedical sector is in danger of becoming a case study in how research and innovation policy go wrong,” said James Wilsdon, one of the paper’s two authors. “Whether we look at the R&D pipeline of big pharma, the market for biotech startups, or the sustainability of the underpinning research enterprise, the biomedical model is in serious trouble,” added Richard Jones.

For the first time, this report sets out the evidence, facts and analysis needed to challenge the reliance on biomedical approaches. For too long, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors have dominated policy thinking, meanwhile much of the wider innovation needed for the NHS, public health and social care has been under-resourced.

Notes to editors

  1. The report is a Nesta working paper written by Richard Jones, Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield and James Wilsdon, Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield. It states that by 2020, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will have a turnover of £8 billion a year but this needs to be accompanied by a step-change in research and innovation performance.
  2. This report is part of Nesta's programme of research and experimentation on innovation policy: championing support for innovation that is far more effective, that benefits more people, and that is better able to shape new technologies for both economic and social benefit. See our work on mapping the new innovation economy, making drone technology work for cities and innovating in innovation and growth policies with our Innovation Growth Lab.
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