The cost of medical progress

Some time ago, I have had the pleasure to meet the head of research of a UK-based breast cancer charity, to discuss funding for medical research. At a certain point he said something every medical researcher would like to say: 'There isn't one question I would like to research and I can't'.

Having managed research budgets, I can only imagine how good it would feel to be in his shoes. Having as  job to solve a devastating disease and having the needed resources to make it happen.

The opposite- having not enough resources to run the needed research-  is a heartache.

Funding research in medicine can feel 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 became used in the last 50 years to see things evolve faster every day. Typically, technological innovation disrupts our lives several times per decade, as an output of researchers' work, their salaries being paid by the market. Because in case you had doubts, innovation has a price. Here are the biggest spenders in the private sector:

Spend on research in 2017:












It is noteworthy that among the largest R&D (research and development) budgets claimed, pharmaceutical companies are not leading (5). But UK public budgets for research in medicine are much smaller (6).   




Respiratory diseases

Generic health relevance

All kinds of Cancer 

$ 3.6 B

£ 29   M

£  9    M

£  34  M

£ 476 M

£ 402 M

And below is the US National Institue of Health spending (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

The point is not that cancer research get too much funding but rather to show the lack of funding overall.

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 last year but if we or one of our parents had a stroke, they would be treated with a drug that is 30 years old?