What is cancer research worth?

A report published today in BMC Medicine has shown that for every £1 the public has spent on cancer research in the UK, 40p has been returned to the country’s economy every year following that investment. In this guest blog, Daniel Bridge of Cancer Research UK – one of the organisations that funded the research – takes a look at the findings of the report in more detail.


Today sees the launch of the joint RAND Europe, HERG and King’s College London study Cancer Research: What’s It Worth funded by the Academy of Medical Science, Cancer Research UK, Department of Health and Wellcome Trust. The full paper is published today in BMC Medicine alongside a briefing paper that summarises the key findings.

When talking about the benefits of cancer research the most natural instinct is to highlight how it has benefitted cancer patients and their families. Patient stories help to show how research informs every aspect of a patient’s care, from the way that doctors initially diagnose the disease through to the treatments they receive.

But as a research community we know that stories alone aren’t enough, we also want to better understand the impact of cancer research. One way we can do this is by looking at healthcare statistics, and these show that survival rates have doubled over the last 40 years.

But that’s not all – research has wider effects on our population than survival stats alone show. So can we measure its value to the population as a whole, as well as to patients?

Such information would provide accountability to taxpayers and charity donors, and increase our understanding of how research effectively translates to health and subsequent monetary gains. Financial returns may not be a key driver in research decisions, but the demands on public funding are substantial and it is therefore important to evaluate investment in research.

So, to work out the overall value of cancer research to the UK, as a group of funders we supported the study called Medical Research: What’s It Worth? which has analysed the economic return of UK Government and charity-funded cancer research.

Published today, this study highlights some important features of cancer research in the UK and shows the extent of its benefits.

Spend on cancer research
Total estimated public and charitable spend on cancer research by source of funding, 1970–2009, in current (cash) prices. Click to see larger image.

Using historic data – which catalogues the spending of the major cancer research funders – the study found that over the past 40 years, the UK public has spent £15 billion on cancer research, both through direct charitable donations and taxes. Over the same period cancer survival rates have doubled – in the 1970s, less than a quarter of people with cancer survived, today half will survive.

The study then calculated how much patient benefit was derived from particular cancer interventions, in order to establish the outputs of research. This involved monetising health gains from cancer research using QALYs (quality-adjusted life years) in a similar way that National Institute for Health and Care Excellence does when looking at whether the NHS (the UK’s national health service) should fund cancer treatments or not.

Using a value of £25,000 per QALY — the midpoint of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s normal threshold range — and allowing for the costs of delivery, this resulted in health benefits equivalent to £124 billion through interventions such as better screening, more organised healthcare services and new drug treatments. 

The outputs of cancer interventions in the UK and the amount invested by UK research were therefore established. The final piece of the study then looked to link these two findings by looking at how much of the health benefit could be attributed to UK research and how long it took for research to move from bench to beside.

National clinical guidelines were used to estimate the time lag between research and practice, and the proportion of research linked to the UK. The study found that the proportion of interventions attributable to UK-based research was around 17% and the lag between funding and impact for cancer interventions was around 15 years

Taking into account all these factors the authors concluded that, for every £1 spent on cancer research, health benefits equivalent to around 10 pence was delivered, each subsequent year, to the UK.

But the picture became even rosier when the researchers included the wider economic benefits.

In addition to this 10p, other benefits result from each £1 invested, such as developing knowledge and a skilled workforce, and increasing industry investment in the UK. These additional benefits generated another 30p for the economy each year

In total, this means that for every £1 the public has spent on cancer research, 40p has been returned to the economy every year following that investment.

This study clearly shows that the health benefits that cancer research brings to patients and their families have a very real effect on the economy, and that the wider benefits add up to an even bigger return on investment.

The findings also validate earlier studies that found that cardiovascular and mental health research produced returns of 39p and 37p respectively. This shows a remarkably consistent rate of return across many disease areas.

In providing us with a better picture of the return on investment it also allows us to present a persuasive case for the UK to keep investing in medical research. For comparison, the UK Government’s own internal accounting methods dictate that, for a policy to be deemed ‘a good investment’, they need to return just 3p per year, for every pound invested.

As an investment, medical research knocks that benchmark out of the park.

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