The UK’s biggest cancer charity is cutting research funding by £44m because of a sharp fall in income and has acknowledged that the move could set back the fight against the disease for many years.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which funds nearly half of the cancer research in the country, said it was the most difficult decision it had ever taken but explained that it believed limiting spending now would enable it to continue to support life-saving research in the long-run.
The charity pointed out that a great deal of research into cancer had been halted because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but flagged up that its scientists and laboratories were being repurposed to help tackle the virus.
It said its shops had closed, mass fundraising events had stopped and legacies had reduced, meaning it expected its fundraising income to fall by at least 20–25% in the next financial year as a direct result of the pandemic – a reduction of around £120m.
It announced that it would cut funding to its existing grants and institutes by up to 10% and its national network of centres by around 20%. This works out as a £44m cut to its research portfolio across the year.
The charity is also reducing its operational costs as much as possible and freezing recruitment. Its executive board has taken a 20% pay cut and it is entering consultation with staff to apply a similar reduction to their salaries and to enrol “a substantial number of people” on to the government’s furlough scheme.
Iain Foulkes, the executive director of research and innovation at the charity, said: “Covid-19 has left the whole world in uncharted waters. The unprecedented measures to control the global Covid-19 pandemic have had a huge impact on both our researchers’ ability to carry on in the lab, and on our ability to fundraise.
“Faced with a predicted loss of 20-25% of fundraising income, we are forced to look for savings across our current portfolio. Cancer Research UK funds nearly 50% of the cancer research in the UK and making cuts to research funding is the most difficult decision we have had to make. We don’t do so lightly.
“We have worked hard to ensure the cuts are limited and give our researchers flexibility in how to make them. We are hopeful that limiting our spending now will enable us to continue funding life-saving research in the long run.”
Foulkes said the charity was proud that its researchers were using their skills and equipment to help tackle Covid-19.
“Cancer doesn’t go away during or after Covid-19, but we’re incredibly proud of our community of researchers who have been very quick to respond to the crisis, using their kit, skills and talent to support the NHS and the Covid-19 response,” he said.
The charity receives no funding from the UK government but relies on donations from the public. It supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of more than 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.
In an open letter to researchers, the charity acknowledged that people with cancer were doubly vulnerable, at risk of contracting the virus and enduring a disruption to their standard of care.
But it said the work of its researchers and clinicians had been severely affected.
“Universities have closed, laboratories have wound down their activities, experiments have stopped,” it said. “Researchers are continuing to work productively from home, writing papers, analysing data, pulling together collaborations, reading the literature and generating ideas. But the progress of research will slow down.”
The charity said that most of its clinical academics had been called to the frontline in hospitals. Many of its scientists were volunteering at Covid-19 testing hubs.
The letter said: “We fully support these efforts, which demonstrate the resilience, resourcefulness and altruism of our researchers.”
Cancer Research UK institutes and laboratories are also repurposing their resources to help the Covid-19 response. They have donated equipment and reagents to national testing and have set up their own testing hubs.