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Covid-19: neurological research at risk


Even at the beginning of the year, when reports were emerging of a deadly new virus circulating in China, none of us could have envisaged the scale of what was to unfold.

In February, we were busy interviewing short-listed candidates for our PhD studentships. One candidate had travelled from Jordan. One of our panel members had travelled from Denmark, and others from around the UK. Who had even heard of Zoom back then? Let alone Clapping for Carers or Virtual Fundraising Challenges?

Around a month later, with the number of infections in the UK escalating, the organisers of the London Marathon announced the postponement of the 2020 event – pushing it back from April to October. And with the virus now spreading quickly through the UK, and deaths mounting, the country was ordered into lockdown and normal life ground to a halt.

Research is suspended

Like other workplaces up and down the country, research laboratories were forced to close their doors from 26th March. Clinical research taking place in hospitals and other settings was suspended.

As we closed the doors to our own office and set up desks at home, we began to contemplate the impact of this interruption to our research projects. It was clear that research teams were going to need additional time to complete their planned research, but how would this be funded? Who was going to pay salaries and stipends during lockdown? And what costs would be incurred as a result of experiments being abandoned and then re-started? The costs were mounting at a time when our income was plummeting.

Despite initial uncertainty about whether charity-funded researchers were eligible for furlough, most of the salaried research staff on our grants were eventually furloughed by their research institutes. PhD students were not eligible, so we have continued to pay their stipends throughout. Now that labs are beginning to reopen, staff are coming off furlough to return to the labs but remain unable to work at full capacity. In some cases, the abandonment of experiments has meant the loss of months' worth of work, which will need to be repeated.

We are committed to ensuring that all our projects can recover and deliver on their original objectives. The cost is not yet clear, but our current estimate is that we will need to find between £50,000 and £150,000 in additional funding to see our existing projects through to completion.

This will impact heavily on our ability to fund new research. In light of a looming crisis in medical research funding, however, we have taken the decision that we must move ahead with this year's project grant round, and maintain momentum in our three priority research areas: brain and spinal cord injury, brain tumours, and headache and facial pain. We hope to award three new grants in the Autumn, once our peer review process is complete. Beyond that, everything depends on how soon our income begins to recover.

 A massive impact on fundraising

Like so many charities, we rely on fundraised income to support our work. The London Marathon is particularly important to us, with our incredible runners generating more than a quarter of our annual donated income. Our 2020 team was on track to raise £600,000; how much of that still comes in will depend on whether the rescheduled event can go ahead in October.

Whilst the London Marathon was one of the first fundraising events to topple, many others followed. From other high profile events such as the Great North Run to local runs, walks, bake sales and concerts, fundraising was taking a nose-dive. The 2.6 Challenge was born, encouraging people to raise money for charity by doing 2.6 of something – anything – on London Marathon day and beyond.

We are hugely grateful to those who raised money for us by taking part in the 2.6 Challenge, other fundraising activities, and by simply sending in donations. And we are grateful beyond words to our London Marathon team for overcoming the crushing disappointment of April’s postponement, and continuing to train and fundraise amid the continued uncertainty about whether October’s rescheduled Marathon will go ahead.  

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) has collected data from its member charities on the anticipated impact on Covid-19 on their ability to fund research. In 2019, AMRC members invested £1.9 billion in medical research in the UK, 51% of all public spend on medical research. These charities are projecting a £310 million shortfall in their medical research spend over the next year as a result of Covid-19. This will precipitate an enormous crisis in medical research funding in the UK, with huge swathes of research at risk of being discontinued, and progress stalling in the fight against the many conditions with which we are concerned.

Whilst the Government has provided much-needed support for front-line charities dealing with the immediate impact of Covid-19, there has been no support for medical research charities. We join with the AMRC and other members charities to call for Government to commit to a new Life Sciences-Charity Partnership Fund. This would see a level of match funding from Government for future charity research over the next three years, to bridge the projected gap in research spend.

A long road to recovery

It is clear that we will be dealing with the impact of Covid-19 for many years, on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. From the personal struggles of those who have been severely ill with Covid-19, those who have been bereaved, have lost jobs or whose businesses may have closed, to the broader effects on society and way of life, which will reverberate for a long time to come. The health service and the medical research sector will take years to recover lost ground.

Brain Research UK is a relatively small charity, with a small, dedicated staff team and low overhead costs. We will continue to work hard, to do our very best to weather this storm and overcome the impact of Covid-19, so that we can continue to fund research to help everyone with a neurological condition live better, longer. Your support will make a world of difference - please help us to get neurological research kick-started.