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Survey reveals increases in early career clinical and health research fellowships

28 Nov 2017

A new cross-funder survey reveals that the number of awards for clinical academics at early career stages has doubled in the UK since 2009. Supporting health professionals to be active researchers is important for advancing the understanding of disease, developing better treatments, implementing innovations in healthcare and improving patient outcomes.

The survey of UK investment in clinical and health research fellowships (PDF, 5.02MB) was led by the MRC on behalf of: 13 research funders*; the medical, dental and veterinary schools’ councils; and the Association of Medical Research Charities. It provides a snapshot of current fellowships in 2017 held by medics, dentists, nurses and midwives, veterinarians, allied health professionals (e.g. physiotherapists and speech therapists), and other healthcare professionals.

The 2017 data reveal a marked increase in investment in early career stages for clinical academics since a similar survey in 2009 (PDF, 584KB). The number of pre-doctoral awards increased nearly four-fold since 2009 and the number of fellows holding a doctoral fellowship increased by 24%. There are also more routes available post-PhD, with the total number of awards supporting the initial post-doctoral career stage doubling from 301 in 2009 to 587 in 2017. Much of the increase is due to greater numbers of fellowships supported by the NIHR across this period.

These gains were across the professions surveyed - including medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy and nursing - highlighting the broadened opportunities for clinical academics to gain early career research experience. However, the data also indicate that the number of clinical academics seeking and securing help to transition to research independence (establishing their own team and research niche) has declined, with total awards decreasing by 13% since 2009. The number of established independent clinical academics holding a fellowship also decreased by 43%. Further work is being done to determine if other types of support, by which researchers can establish independent research careers, are compensating for the lower fellowship support.  

The data compiled by the survey highlights that the percentage of female fellows declines steeply with increasing seniority of award. The data are limited, but they are compatible with findings in other surveys. This demonstrates the need for initiatives to develop inclusive and intelligent career models, and to fully implement the guidance provided by the UK clinical academic training in medicine and dentistry: principles and obligations report.

The diversity data available on the age, ethnicity and nationality of fellows was very limited. The report advises that the funders partnering the survey should agree on core data for routine collection, to better inform future UK-wide planning.

In addition, it recommends the funders and partners should conduct formal research to better understand how aspiring clinical academics think about their future, when and how key decision points are reached and what evidence or opinion is sought to inform them. Particular emphasis should be placed on understanding how the survey’s partners might better support increased diversity and inclusion in clinical academic careers.

Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the MRC, said: “I’m delighted to see that more early career clinicians than ever before are pursuing interest in academic medicine. The report highlights, however, that more needs to be done to support these colleagues, particularly women, as they transition to independence.”

Dr Joanna Jenkinson, MRC Head of Capacity and Skills, said: “Clinical academics have an important role linking clinical practice and research and, encouragingly, this survey shows substantial increases in support for their careers. It also highlights the need for the partners of this survey to work together to capitalise on the potential being fostered in the early career stages and support these talented individuals as they develop into the next generation of clinical and health research leaders.”

Read the report: 2017 UK-Wide Survey of Clinical and Health Research Fellowships (download the data (XLSX, 334KB)).

Previous report: OCSHR UK-wide Survey of Health Research Fellowships 2009

*The survey included live fellowships in April 2017 from 13 funders: Academy of Medical Sciences; Action Medical Research; Alzheimer’s Research UK; British Heart Foundation; Cancer Research UK; Chief Scientist Office (Scotland); Health and Care Research Wales; Health & Social Care R&D, Northern Ireland; Higher Education Funding Council for England; Medical Research Council; National Institute for Health Research (including schemes supported jointly by Health Education England and NIHR); Stroke Association; Wellcome. Additional data was also supplied by NHS Education for Scotland, the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency, and the Wales Deanery.

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