The cost of medical progress



Some time ago, I have had the pleasure to meet the head of research of Breast Cancer Now, to discuss funding for medical research. At a certain point he said something every head of research in medicine would like to be able to say: There isn't one research project I would like to fund and I can't. As someone who managed some research budgets in medicine too, I can testify how good it can feel to be in his position, with a job consisting of solving one of the human devastating diseases and to be in a position to make possible just every research you deem necessary to advance your agenda. And the opposite is a heartache when you think to the people who are suffering as long as no cure was discovered. Research in medicine- or innovation feels sometimes, like a holy endeavour.


I am not sure how it feels in other industries but I assume that the vast majority of researchers are passionate by their job, and that wealth of resources makes them happy.

There is a lot of research going on out there. We got used in the last 50 years to see things evolve faster every day. Typically every 2 years new phone devices come to the market, new cars, new computers, 3D printing and so on. They all are the output of researchers work, their salaries being paid bid by the market. Because in case you had doubts, innovation has a price. Here are the biggest spenders in the private sector:












It is intriguing to see that these companies may have bigger R&D budgets than pharmaceutical companies (5). This is because the pharmaceutical industry has started a few years ago to replace its R&D operations with external R&D portfolios imported through licensing or mergers and acquisitions. research

 Medicine is just like cars, or phones. Researchers paid with your money to create better technologies or better treatments.  But public budgets for research in medicine are 100 times smaller in the UK and 10-100 times smaller in the US.

The UK  government and charities spend on research (6)   

Total (for all disease categories)



Respiratory diseases

Generic health relevance

All kinds of Cancer 

$ 3.6 Billion

£ 29   Million

£  9    Million

£  34  Million

£ 476 Million

£ 402 Million

And here is what the US National Institue of Health spends in 2017


Some budgets in medicine are 50 times bigger than others.

This difference doesn't seem to be associated to the burden of the disease. If you compare cancer and...

Funding for cancer research is bigger by


Respiratory diseases:


13 times

12 times

44 times

The burden of 

cancer (7) is bigger by

4.5 times

2.5 times

2.5 times

As a conclusion, of course we need to die of something but isn't it regrettable to know how little we try to find cures, while we try so hard with goods like our phones, cars and computers?

Isn't it striking that we have in our pockets phones that entered the market lats year but if we had to get a stroke now, or one of our parents, they would be treated with a drug that is 30 years old?