The problem is that people are prepared to pay for the cherry, but they won’t pay for the cake

The title is a quote from the excellent Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Cath Green, on how they led teams to develop (with others and with AstraZeneca) the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and to bring it into use to vaccinate millions, including me. It is very readable, as well as being an inspiring read. If you are looking for your next book, I strongly recommend this one. The quote is from the final chapter, and I think it is worth quoting some more from that chapter:

Academic vaccine projects that attract funding are almost always to make a vaccine for a specific disease, not to do the underpinning work on more general improvements …. This work could have cut months off our response time, and the amounts we were asking for … look laughably tiny compared with the hundred of billions we have had to spend on fighting this pandemic. … [A] significant chunk of the UK funding … has come from the UK’s Official Development Assistance budget – a budget that has just been cut.

I recognise and sympathise with the frustration that vital underpinning research can be almost impossible to get funded. In many cases over 90% of attempts to get funding being rejected and funders often want you to show how-paradigm-shifting etc is your research. But many processes that we rely on, from making vaccines to rubber gloves, have parts that are poorly understood and done at the moment in a rather empirical way. This is partly because no funding body is interested in funding work to understand how they work, and so make them work better and faster.

I have certainly been on grants where we promised to do something completely new, that turned out to both very hard, and less interesting that just working out some of the basic physics going on. Fortunately UK funders often don’t mind this switch in direction, but it is still inefficient that fundamental underpinning work is only done by diverting resources. And as Gilbert and Green say, if more of their underpinning research had been funded, we could have had vaccines earlier.

It is also made me wince to read that some of money needed for the early work on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was funded from the overseas programme that the UK government is now cutting. As a taxpayer who was vaccinated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine I think that was taxpayers’ money well spent.

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