PATIENTS could be denied life-saving drugs under government plans to slash health research funding in Wales, experts have warned.
Leading academics and researchers last night condemned the move, announced as part of last week’s draft Budget.
They claim it will have far-reaching and dire consequences for the NHS and the wider Welsh economy and could even cost lives.
The Western Mail understands that Professor John Williams, director of Word, the Assembly Government’s body which commissions and funds health and social-care research and development, has tendered his resignation over the cuts.
And 36 of Wales’ most acclaimed experts – including Nobel Prize winner Sir Martin Evans – have signed a letter to First Minister Rhodri Morgan condemning the £1m budget cut, warning of the risks to patient care and of a brain drain of Wales’ most talented researchers to other parts of the UK.
One of the academics to sign the letter said this was “one of the downsides of devolution” as smaller budgets are squeezed to fund expensive voter-friendly initiatives such as free prescriptions.
There are even fears that the future of the Wales Cancer Trials Network, which gives cancer patients access to the newest drugs and treatments, could be threatened as a result of the budget cut.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a professor of palliative care based at Cardiff’s Velindre Hospital, said, “There is a lot of evidence that patients treated in places undertaking research do better, particularly in terms of survival rates.”
The Welsh research community had been expecting funding to rise to a promised £46m. Instead, the pressure on the overall Budget in Wales has seen the draft allocation to Word (the Wales Office of Research and Development for Health and Social Care) fall by £1m.
This is despite the commitment in the Labour-Plaid One Wales agreement to work to create a National Institute for Health Research.
The current allocation for health and social-care research in Wales is £26m, compared with the English research budget which will increase to £992m – a pro rata allocation for Wales would be £58m by 2010-11. Wales also only attracts an “abysmal” amount of competitive grant funding from major research backers– just 1.6% of UK funding, compared with Scotland’s 13%.
Professor Malcolm Mason, Cancer Research Wales professor of clinical oncology at Cardiff University, said, “The Assembly Government has not grasped that if it wants a first-class health service then it has to be absolutely welded to a first-class health research programme.
“They can shout all they want about standards and targets but they have failed to see the impact of this link between research and the health service. As a result they have got the health service they deserve, which is, unfortunately, not the one the people of Wales deserve.”
And Professor John Wagstaff, clinical lead of the South West Wales Cancer Research Network, said, “Having an active research community benefits patients in the sense that they get access to treatments in trials before they become available in the wider world.
“Having a good infrastructure for research means that we develop new treatments, new drugs, new ideas, which usually leads to the development of spin- off companies, which create jobs.
“If Welsh research becomes successful, the universities often retain some intellectual property over it – some make millions from owning such intellectual property.
“Not investing in research and development is a disaster for the economy as a whole.”
The Welsh Cancer Trials Network, which helps cancer patients gain access to ground-breaking treatments and drugs, is funded by the Assembly Government and, until next year, by Cancer Research UK.
It is feared that if the overall Word budget is cut, there will not be enough money to replace the charity’s annual £500,000 contribution, resulting in redundancies and even a reduction in the number of patients who take part in clinical trials of new cancer drugs.
Any fall in research funding will also have potentially catastrophic effects on Wales’ research sector, especially as the rest of the UK continues to invest heavily in health and social-care research.
Although only a small country, Wales is acknowledged as being at the forefront of many health research fields, particularly cancer research.
But a lack of investment in the sector could lead to a brain drain from the country, leaving Wales without a knowledge economy. One of the 36 academics said Wales was already struggling to recruit.
Sir Martin, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his pioneering work on stem cells, said, “This will have fairly severe problems for a lot of the clinical research in Wales and will have knock-on effects if some of our best researchers move over the border – the best will go where they can do their best work.”
Prof Mason added, “A standstill [in funding] would be bad enough, but a cut is unthinkable. The Assembly Government feels it can do what it likes to research because it is never going to be an issue when it comes to elections.”
In a statement, the Assembly Government said it was determined that Wales should play a full role in health and social-care research developments.
A spokesman said, “Funding issues cut across more than one portfolio and discussions between ministers on further allocations for medical research and development are still ongoing.”