Date Published: February 27, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Charitini Stavropoulou, Melek Somai, John P. A. Ioannidis, Johan Bollen.
The UK is one of the largest funders of health research in the world, but little is known about how health funding is spent. Our study explores whether major UK public and charitable health research funders support the research of UK-based scientists producing the most highly-cited research. To address this question, we searched for UK-based authors of peer-reviewed papers that were published between January 2006 and February 2018 and received over 1000 citations in Scopus. We explored whether these authors have held a grant from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust and compared the results with UK-based researchers who serve currently on the boards of these bodies. From the 1,370 papers relevant to medical, biomedical, life and health sciences with more than 1000 citations in the period examined, we identified 223 individuals from a UK institution at the time of publication who were either first/last or single authors. Of those, 164 are still in UK academic institutions, while 59 are not currently in UK academia (have left the country, are retired, or work in other sectors). Of the 164 individuals, only 59 (36%; 95% CI: 29–43%) currently hold an active grant from one of the three funders. Only 79 (48%; 95% CI: 41–56%) have held an active grant from any of the three funders between 2006–2017. Conversely, 457 of the 664 board members of MRC, Wellcome Trust, and NIHR (69%; 95% CI: 65–72%) have held an active grant in the same period by any of these funders. Only 7 out of 655 board members (1.1%) were first, last or single authors of an extremely highly-cited paper. There are many reasons why the majority of the most influential UK authors do not hold a grant from the country’s major public and charitable funding bodies. Nevertheless, the results are worrisome and subscribe to similar patterns shown in the US. We discuss possible implications and suggest ways forward.
The UK is home to some of the largest public and charity funding bodies of health research in the world. In 2014, the UK spent approximately £3bn on health research through public and charity sources. Although the extent to which this public investment reaches its full potential is not known–and indeed in the past has been questioned - a number of cases have demonstrated that improvements in public health, discovery of new treatments and the implementation of more efficient ways to deliver services in the NHS would not have been possible without this financial support.
Our study provides evidence that the majority of the most influential UK health scientists do not receive funding from the country’s three main public and charity funders. Only 36.2% of these authors have currently an active grant as PIs from the MRC, the Wellcome Trust or the NIHR. The results are comparable to the findings of Nicholson and Ioannidis , who showed that only 39.7% of extremely highly-cited authors in the US held an active grant from the NIH in 2012. Of course, one needs to be cautious when comparing the UK with the USA, as there are large differences in terms of the pool of academics and the funding available. In 2013, the NIH’s total health research expenditure was $26 billion where the UK’s MRC, NIHR and Wellcome Trust together spent a little more than $2.7 billion, about one-tenth of the NIH investment. Yet, the picture seems to be consistent in both cases: many of the researchers who publish the most influential papers in health research may be left out of public and charity funding.