Not so charitable

There is an interesting letter in Nature from Mark Walport (head of the Wellcome Trust) and a number of other charity funders in Nature. It is in response to an earlier article entitled Philanthropy: the price of charity from Peter Aebischer who is president of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland. My take on the original article was the he (PA) was  pointing out that charity funding does not meet the full cost of research, and that in effect it drains funds from other revenue streams within Universities. He also points out that charities may be able to respond quicker to funding requests and that they influence the direction of research. It is the former points that interest  me the most.

In their response Walport et al counter:

The UK government supports charity-funded research as part of its higher-education funding. This enables charitable funds, often donated by the public, to be spent directly on research while the government pays universities to cover the costs of overheads and infrastructure.

They then give examples of how funding from charities does provide significant contributions to infrastructure.

I would really like to see some details of the cash flow for charity funding in the UK. Richard DeMillo in a lecture at Google points out that for every 1$ in research funding received, a US University will spend 2.5$ attracting the research monies. In DeMillo’s recent  book he argues that much of higher education spending is coming from money that is supposed to be spent on classroom teaching.The issue is that everybody knows research is expensive and charity funding appears not to meet the full costs falling on the institution. When research was more marginal that it is today, the issue was not so critical. For medicine however, so much of our funding is charitable that the worry is that this funding sucks money from other funding streams (such as teaching).

Peter Aebischer writes that ” academies must avoid propping up underfunded research activities with educational resources.” and that we need to see much clear cost accounting. I think he is right. Walport states that “The UK research base benefits from the breadth and diversity provided by a mix of public, for-profit and charitable funders.” Indeed it does: the more pertinent question is whether higher education does, and whether than includes those paying fees.


Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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