The Department of Health's head of research has mounted a robust defence of the new single pool for public funding of health R&D.

Addressing a conference in London, Professor Sally Davies, director of research at the Department of Health, appeared to suggest that the changes, which include the merging of R&D spending by the NHS and Medical Research Council, had protected research funding from the sort of cuts now being inflicted on NHS education and training as the health service grapples with record deficits.

Professor Davies, who heads up the new National Institute for Health Research, said that Chancellor Gordon Brown had ringfenced the money allocated to health R&D. She claimed the government had listened carefully during the consultation on Best Research for Best Health, the R&D strategy adopted earlier this year. In the 2006 budget, the Chancellor sanctioned the merger of MRC and NHS spending on R&D. Professor Davies added that it was important to get the structure right before asking for more money.

Bringing benefits to patients

She urged all those involved in R&D to ensure their work brought maximum benefits to patients, suggesting some scientists and clinical academics became too wound up in their "fascination" with the science.

"I am concerned that while most scientists do it out of fascination and also want to make a difference, a lot of them don't carry it through to make a real difference to healthcare." She said the new fund will support studies which extensive reviews suggest would deliver better results for patients.

But, in a statement issued after the Chancellor confirmed the new arrangements in his pre-budget report, the British Medical Association voiced concern at what it saw as a possible £300 million funding gap. Professor Michael Rees, chairman of the association's medical academic staff committee, said that the combined R&D budgets of the NHS and MRC for 2007/08 had been expected to reach £1.3 billion - while in this week's pre-budget report the Chancellor referred to the new single fund providing "over £1 billion a year."

He said: "We welcome the fact that the Chancellor has set out a clear vision for medical science and in particular for applied research which benefits patients. We are also pleased that research and development budgets will be ringfenced. However medical researchers need to be confident that baseline funding will not be eroded by the new combined fund. We have significant concerns about the possibility of the merger resulting in medical research being worse off by several hundreds of millions of pounds." By Chris Mahony