Research funding crunch during the pandemic

Covid revealed what science can do when funding is found | Financial Times

This wasn’t the case for many others in the same field. “Thousands of promising clinical trials under way before the pandemic have been disrupted or even stopped,” notes a report from the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a US non-profit. Earlier this year there were still 1,000 on hold, “with about 30 percent of those considered pivotal focused on cancer, 13 percent on cardiovascular disease, and another 13 percent on issues affecting the central nervous system”. The net result, it adds, is likely to raise “non-viral casualties” on top of the specific Covid-19 tally.

It is impossible to answer the first question without having an answer to the second; and here the outlook seems uncertain. In some ways, the pandemic ought to make us all feel more upbeat about the long-term future of medical research. A report from the Milken Institute, an independent economic think-tank, notes that one silver lining of the crisis was “many positive and innovative actions were taken by those in the biomedical innovation community, and it’s critical that we identify, acknowledge, and build on this progress”.

The author makes a coherent case for funding during the pandemic. There are numerous “non-profits” that have proliferated by issuing out reports – how much impact do they have? While the write up reads like a PR push, philanthropy with academia is a slippery slope. You can’t have the “universities hired for research” scenario to push agendas. It might involve data fudging – or some clever accountancy skills.

I have always advocated public funding with clear guidelines – leaving some portion for “curiosity driven research”, which is bound to fail on many counts, and rest for application driven research. Basic sciences should meld in application – to use science for real problems than shooting up people in the sky for vanity metrics and colonisation of other planets. Those are pipe dreams. The same funding can improve preventive healthcare, identify means for better palliation and pain relief.

The problems arise when there is excessive duplication of research – grants are limited. How do you avoid a “science-race”. These are local pertinent issues – but problems magnify when you extrapolate them at the global scale.

Here’s a comparison with the VC firms:

That is partly because government budgets are constrained — and will probably become more so, as debt pressures bite. But it is also because private finance for research is uneven. Deep-pocketed venture capital firms throw cash at ventures that seem likely to work, but are often reluctant to fund early-stage trials. So are established drugs companies, if the medical issues affect only a small number of people.

Funding methodology requires an overhaul. One reason why VC firms shy away from basic research – sometimes it requires lengthy gestation periods. For those firms attempting to game the metrics, it is not a win-win situation.

I will revisit this theme again.

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