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The £50m gamble: Big Society leads cancer research across valley of death

April 2, 2012
Bridging the valley of death in cancer research

Bridging the valley of death in cancer research

Dovetailing with the government’s otherwise-stalled Big Society agenda, the third sector is now stumping up both cash and fuel for commercialisation in cancer research.

The story is that Cancer Research UK’s commercial arm, Cancer Research Technology, and  the European Investment Fund are planning to bridge the valley of death with £50m so that cancer drug discovery can trot straight over to the other side into development and commercialisation.

Where charities like Cancer Research UK once spent their funds on research, now they are also spending money on commercialisation. Thanks to this new plan, announced on Thursday, the government can take a back seat. But that hasn’t stopped science minister David Willetts gleefully taking the credit:

“In our Strategy for UK Life Sciences we set out ambitious plans to build on the success of the industry by fostering collaboration between our excellent research base and businesses. This initiative from Cancer Research Technology and the European Investment Fund will complement this work extremely well, helping to take our world-leading science from the laboratory through to benefits for patients and the economy.”

Willetts has performed quite a sleight of hand here, in the phrase “our world-leading science”. It’s almost as if he and the government are a part of this science. But actually the whole point of this collaboration is that the government is hands-off. The government has said time and again – not just in the life sciences strategy – that it believes in the market’s ability to spot the best science and monetise it. Previous governments may have had different policies, but the approach of this government is clear: create the environment so that science can reach the market with little interference from politicians.

CR UK: fuelling British science and application

CR UK: fuelling British science and application

And that’s what the new £50m investment fund aims to do. Cancer Research Technology brings to market innovative science that is funded by all of those will-writers and fun-runners who donate money to Cancer Research UK.

This new plan is a real example of the Big Society handing over time and money not just for the science itself, but the application of it too. Last week’s announcement does not include details of any industry partners with whom the fund managers are already flirting, so we’ll have to wait and see whether it’ll be £50m sensibly invested.

I wonder to what extent this plan represents a significant shift in UK science funding. It seems like a way of democratically delivering on what most Britons probably want from science. ‘Cure for cancer’ has to come high on anyone’s list.

But at the same time, this model depends on public whim and commercial potential – neither of which are often connected to blue-sky breakthroughs.

While cancer research may be able to cross the valley of death without government help, I’d bet that less popular science proves stickier.

Image courtesy of mogrith.

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