Health research funding is no gambling matter

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan


While many country representatives described to the Forum 2012 meeting their battles to create a flow of financing for health research, an unusual problem has come up in Colombia: how to make it stop.

Mery Barragan Avila, head of the research division at Columbia’s Department of Science, Technology and Innovation’s research division, told a session at the meeting that being selected as a recipient for the funds derived from a tax on gambling had created its own share of problems.

Health research funding should not be left to chance (Credit: Flickr/sincerelyhiten)

“It was like winning the lottery,” she said of the unexpected windfall. But problems followed, as the department lacked the capacity to manage the funding.

In addition, the stipulation that royalties remained in the regions in which gambling took place had also created conflicts – and the potential for unequal treatment – between the regions.

Her example reflected the need for health research to retain government support at its core. Other forms of funding were often erratic, and based on a shorter timescale than that required for effective in-depth health research.

An example from Panama, on the other hand, showed the importance of advocacy, as the research community had made a strong case to government, to donors and to the pharmaceutical industry, emphasising the value of research.

Partnerships with pharmaceutical companies are widely quoted as one way forward, for example by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), but this route has to be navigated with care.

“We have to ensure that we all understand each other, because we all have different aims,” said Catherine Elliot, the MRC’s head of clinical research support. It could take 40 years of research to develop a major breakthrough. But pharmaceutical companies needed research to be translated into results in three to four years, she said.

Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

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