Understanding the Importance of Research

PCRC has made changes to how we assess and evaluate our research. Reflecting on changes in medical research funding, our former Fundraising & Research Officer Daniel Scales discusses why and how we are doing so.

The collective influence of charities on medical research in the United Kingdom is huge

Medical research is the UK’s most popular charitable cause.

  • 40% (£1.6bn+) of all medical research funding comes from charities.
  • Charities funded over 17,000 scientists in 2016.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) exists to channel this collective power. It provides a voice for charities and advocates for the impact of charities on medical research. This helps other major players in the medical research ecosystem – the government, pharmaceutical companies and universities – to take note of the power of charities. PCRC became an AMRC member in 2015. Its 143 other members vary in size and scope from the UK’s largest charity, Cancer Research UK, to dozens of small organisations focused on single diseases. As well as offering access to this community, AMRC membership is a hallmark of research excellence; every member abides by its research policies and undergoes peer review audits.

By bringing medical research charities together and advocating for their collective power, the ARMC has been an integral part of a shift in how charities think about their research. It no longer acceptable to give money to a scientist, sit back, and hope for seminal breakthroughs or transformative discoveries to which the funder can stake their claim. Both charities and scientists increasingly recognise by that the collective impact of charity-funded research is hugely important. A research project is not unsuccessful because it did not result in a new medicine. Every piece of medical research has scientists testing hypotheses and sharing their findings. This contributes to a critical mass of knowledge and innovation which is mutually beneficial for every stakeholder – most of all patients.

Now, more than ever, charity funders recognise this, and strive to monitor the immediate effects of their research and track its long-term consequences. To do so, medical research charities – far more than universities and research councils – are moving beyond simply using academic peer reviews to assess research. Instead, charities are seeking to examine the real-world, practical effects of the science they fund, even if its eventual outcome is not a new treatment. To reiterate, simply giving money to scientists and waiting for a one in a million discovery is no longer enough.

A ‘Research Fish’?

Researchfish is an online data collection tool for the outcomes and impact of research. PCRC will begin using it in2018/19. Researchfish was developed in collaboration with the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 2008/09 in response to the MRC’s need for a consistent way to monitor their research and assess its results.

Researchfish allows researchers to report to their funder about what they do; publications, who they work with, how they share their work, new methods and techniques they develop, influence on government policy or medical practice, or sources of further funding from elsewhere. For a full techy list, click here. All these things are hugely important to any medical research charity who want to understand the impact of their research.

Thanks to an AMRC and MRC partnership established in 2013, AMRC members who spend up to £5m per annum on research can use Researchfish for a tiny fee.

In 2013, PRCR was not yet an AMRC member and only funded two research projects. Today, PCRC has four established projects and are excited to launch new research projects later this year.

As PCRC finalised our own plans, the AMRC and the Medical Research Council agreed four more years of collaboration. The timing was ideal. Adopting Researchfish is a big step forward. We have found that we do not know everything we need to know about our research. Annual reports can only tell us so much and we have found a lot interesting new information about our research from ad-hoc conversations with scientists. As our research portfolio grows, Researchfish will streamline this process.

Over the coming years, it will enable us to build a bank of empirical evidence about the impact of our research. This means we are more accountable. When people ask ‘what difference has my donation made?’, or ‘why should I give to PCRC?’ we can answer with renewed confidence; we have strategically collected information which shows the positive impact of our research for patients and on the world of medical research. Having access to this information and data will help us to communicate the impact of our research to you, our supporters, in a clear and transparent way.

Some charities have taken this approach to extremes. Take Street League’s slightly overwhelming dashboard for example. Others, including many of our AMRC peers, have digested the data generated by Researchfish into easy to read, informative, reports which help their supporters understand why medical research is so valuable. This is what PCRC aspire to do in the future, starting with our forthcoming 2018 Impact Report.

The Bigger Picture

The AMRC is striving to make data submitted to Researchfish open and available to all its users. Having access to information about the research that universities, the government, and charities fund can help funders improve their research strategy. For example, it can help charities to identify unexplored opportunities for future science. Small to medium sized funders such as PCRC are in prime position to take advantage of these opportunities for innovation, as we can adapt far quicker than a massive funding organisation such as a university. This data could also help charities identify how to allocate their research spend. For example, if a charity is targeting a certain result, they could analyse data from previous years to compare the effects of funding many small proof-of-concept studies compared with a few big translational projects.

Having access to this data helps the AMRC and its members to see how collaborations vary across diseases and research activities; they can see who is working with who and how fruitful different collaborations are. This could help to identify new opportunities for collaborations between scientists and organisations to improve outcomes for patients. PCRC scientist Dr Ahmed is a prime example of the power of collaborative working. He’s worked with vets and clinical researchers from other cancers to explore the possibilities around repurposed MPRCs. As for charities working together, MND Association and Marie Curie combined their expertise and launch research into palliative care for people with Motor Neurone Disease.

To conclude, I am excited that PCRC is beginning to proactively role in monitoring our research, understand how we relate to other funders, and explore new possibilities to fund research in potentially innovative ways. Our mission remains the same; improve survival rates and quality-of-life for men with life-threatening prostate cancer. Everything discussed here will help us achieve this mission, and maximise the patient benefits of our research.

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