Medical Research: what return on investment should we expect?

Everyone knows that the economic value of medical research is difficult to measure but the returns for our communities are great. A global assessment of the return on investment in medical research would encourage even the most bearish of investors. In the UK, for example, a government spend of £1 can yield 25 pence of benefits in GDP gains and health gains per year and attract an additional £0.99 of private R&D.

Medical research is a fickle entity.

The situation is similar on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the investment is patchy. Specific areas of medical research, yield much greater returns. For example, US government’s $3.8 billion initial investment in the Human Genome Project (HGP) resulted in almost $1 trillion in economic growth, which represents a 178-fold return on investment. National Institutes of Health allocate disproportionately large amounts of funding towards cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Private sector medical research also has its favourites. US private sector research funding indulges medical devices, bioengineered drugs, and late-stage clinical trials, particularly for cancer and rare diseases. There are also some major underdogs. Funding of service innovation and life sciences patents is decreasing at an exponential rate.

Whilst we like to think of medical research as sacrosanct, in fact, it is a fickle entity. These days it is more driven by financial and populist concerns than ever before; and less driven by the pursuit of knowledge. For example, the growing research focus on cancer treatments is as much a result of high levels of reimbursement for cancer care and populist beliefs as it is on the evolving science of carcinogenesis.

Where funding is politically driven, there is a lot of “free loading”of research. Three-quarters of health gains in the UK arise from research undertaken in other countries which have top level researchers and/or access to clinicians and patients. Australia is one of those countries. It ranks seventh on the list of government sponsored research funders.

It may not be all bad. The impact of these directions in medical research will take years to assess. In the meantime, it is important to make sure as much of the research output is communicated as possible, so future scientists can build on the current foundations.

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