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Published on 16 January 2009

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Research is big business

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Huge EU investment in research into tomorrow’s technologies is driven by the giants of European research, and would be better invested in the technologies of today …

Brian Edwards
CBE

Emeritus Professor of Healthcare Development University of Shefield
UK

The European Commission have just put out a call for bids on the health section of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) worth €476 million.[1] Research is now big business in the Commission and follows the Lisbon strategy which stated that investment in research and development would produce major economic benefits for the EU. Every €1 invested in research would, it was claimed, produce €4-7 in economic benefits and would, as the Commission rather grandly put it, “affect one of the EU’s main goals of increasing the potential for economic growth and strengthening economic competitiveness by investing in knowledge, innovation and human capital”.

It was judged that the best results would be produced by concentrating research efforts through larger projects with critical research mass. The total research budget at the start of FP7 was €5.3 billion a year, which, whilst an enormous sum of money, still represents less than 5% of the total EU budget. Agriculture soaks up over €50 billion.

Over the period of the programme from 2007 to 2013, health will have available a sum of €6.1 billion. The objectives of the health research programme are to improve the health of European citizens and boost the competitiveness of health-related industries and businesses. Priority is to be given to biotechnology, translating research into clinical practice and optimising healthcare delivery.

Amongst the planned results will be a new EU project to develop a catalogue of genetic variation, which may have major implications for the pharmaceutical industry in the longer term.

Given that health is a national rather than an EU competence, this level of investment may come as a surprise to some, but few appear to be challenging it. A more appropriate question might be whether the funds are being invested wisely? Cynics will argue, with some force, that European healthcare systems cannot implement or afford existing medical science and the last thing they need is more pressure. The research investment might be better ploughed into efficiency studies and health technology investment reviews that lead to existing spending being made more effective.

Given that medical science will not stand still until resources for deployment catch up, the answer must be a better balance between improving today’s efficiency and discovering tomorrow’s science. Finding ways of tackling the inefficiency in complex health systems (assessed by some as 20% or more) could generate enormous sums for reinvestment. The current research programme needs a decisive switch of emphasis
in favour of applying today’s knowledge.

The policy of centralisation in order to secure critical research mass appears to have been accepted as an inevitable truth. It is not. It is rather like the argument that bigger clinical centres get better results than smaller ones. Some do, but not all; some smaller units generate excellent results. Size is only one of a number of components of success. The current plan is too simplistic and favours the established centres which already dominate decision making.

This whole programme has been driven for too long by the professional research community, and it is time governments and managers took a closer interest.

1. Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Health Research. The European Union; 2008 [cited 2008 Oct]. Available from: http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/health/home_en.htm



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