A blog by Professor Philippa Saunders FMedSci, Chair, Springboard selection panel.
As our Springboard scheme celebrates two new funding partnerships, we reflect on its successes so far.
- Convening funders to catalyse change
Our Springboard scheme is one example where working together with other funders enables us to fill a gap in support for biomedical researchers at a key stage in their career, as they take on the challenges of their first independent post. The culture of collaboration between funders on initiatives such as this is one of the key strengths of a supportive UK research environment.
Since Springboard’s launch, undertaken with the support of the Wellcome Trust, additional funders have joined the Academy’s consortium to support early career biomedical researchers. For round four, we are celebrating Diabetes UK joining the consortium, and additional funds from the Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Talent Fund.
Other members of the funding consortium include the British Heart Foundation and the Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Global Challenges Research Fund. Funding consortiums bring a breadth of expertise and resources, and the Academy is at the forefront of this agile mode of funding.
Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said: “We’re joining forces once again with the Academy for Medical Sciences to offer even more support to the diabetes research community. Through their innovative Springboard scheme, we can provide guidance and mentorship to scientists at a vital stage in their career, helping them to become independent and successful.
- Targeting a vulnerable career point
To date, Springboard has supported 87 biomedical researchers at the start of their first independent position. In 2012 an Academy Task Force led by Martin Humphries identified this as a particularly vulnerable career point. There are currently upwards of 7,000 biomedical researchers at this stage in the UK so this support is more urgently needed than ever.
The Springboard scheme offers a bespoke package of support to biomedical researchers which includes independent funding of up to £100,000 over two years, as well as access to the Academy’s acclaimed mentoring and career development programme.
- Access to world-leading mentoring and career development support
Technological advances are transforming society, and we urgently need a workforce equipped to be effective in a rapidly changing landscape. Springboard provides a personalised package of support to give Awardees the skills they need to be leaders in this future workforce.
‘Springboarders’ are supported through our first-class career development programme which includes access to the Academy’s mentoring programme, an induction event, access to the Academy’s annual Winter Science meeting and regional career development events. The Academy’s Mentoring scheme is also open to unsuccessful Springboard applicants – some of whom go on to successfully reapply.
Having identified that not enough women scientists are securing senior leadership posts in the UK, the Academy developed the SUSTAIN programme, supporting women to thrive in independent research careers. Springboarder Dr Sian Henson, who was in the 2017 SUSTAIN cohort, says, “Throughout my career I’ve been trained how to do experiments, interpret data and apply for grants. What we are not trained in is how to run that grant and manage a team of people. The management training I’ve received from the Academy of Medical Sciences via the SUSTAIN programme has been invaluable, it’s provided me with a solid foundation on which to grow my team."
- Working with universities to identify excellence
Each eligible university has a Springboard Champion who works closely with academic colleagues and their Research Office, to identify their most promising applicants and nominate them to Springboard. The 87 Springboarders really are the best of the best biomedical researchers at their career stage.
The Academy is indebted to the Champions, other senior academics, and research officers who make Springboard happen.
- Supporting the full diversity of medical science
Springboard is fully diverse in terms of grant-holders’ gender and geography, and projects’ breadth of focus. For example, of round three’s 32 awardees, 19 are female, 12 are male, and one preferred not to say. Awardees are based across the UK, including St. Andrews, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, London, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter and Southampton.
Springboard also embraces the full diversity of biomedical research, from veterinary science, cardiovascular health, Alzheimer’s, antimicrobial resistance, tuberculosis, and smart phone technology. We encourage applications from molecular, cellular and structural biology to anatomical, physiological, psychological, epidemiological and public health research areas. Approaches can be experimental or theoretical, basic laboratory research through clinical application to healthcare delivery.
Since 2017, Springboard has given up to five awards each year for projects that address global health challenges. These are funded by the Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) as part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment.
Claire Goldstraw, Head of the Overseas Development Aid (ODA)’s Research Management Team, which looks after Global Challenge Research Funds (GCRF), said, “The Global Challenges Research Fund tackles global challenges within the UK’s national interest. Countries on the ODA list are in urgent need of research that will tackle their developmental and health challenges to support economic growth and improve health. Research conducted by Springboard’s GCRF awardees may lead to health improvements for millions of people around the world.”
- Funding at the forefront of science
We are living in an ‘omics’ era, where our understanding of own genetics and biology is gathering pace. From machine learning to the development of deep learning, we are in the midst of a data and artificial intelligence revolution – and Springboarders are at the forefront of this innovation.
“Antimicrobial resistance is an increasingly serious threat to public health. My interdisciplinary research applies mathematical techniques to medical problems, in particular modelling infectious diseases.’’
“My project seeks to improve the quality of life for the 9 to 10 million people per year worldwide, including around 6,500 people in the UK.” Ruth Bowness, Round 3 GCRF awardee
Molly Crockett, a Round 1 awardee, was recognised as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum: “My work is growing the AI and data-driven economy, and asks the questions ‘How do people make moral decisions? How is this different during mental illness?’ We use smartphone-based technologies to measure social experiences in real-time. We can then link these to collected brain data to identify risk factors for mental illness, and predict treatment outcomes for these individuals.”
- Research to improve people’s lives
Improvements in medicine mean that we are now living longer, but with more years of ill health. Age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease represent a growing challenge for the NHS, and are devastating for those affected and their families. Springboard awardees are united in their desire to see real world benefits from their research that will improve the health of our society.
Catherine Hall is a Springboard round 1 awardee working to improve treatment options, and influence government policy on dementia:
Alice Davidson is poised to rapidly influence clinical care of the ageing population, despite her Springboard grant being for basic research. Alice researches Fuchs Endothelial Corneal Dystrophy (FECD), which is a common, age-related, corneal dystrophy estimated to affect more than 4.5% of individuals over 50. Her Springboard project investigated causal pathways of common genetic abnormalities that underlie FECD in around 70% of people.
Talking about the outcomes of this award, she said, “I am now working in partnership with my biotech collaborators at ProQR and clinical colleagues at Moorfields Eye Hospital towards a phase 1 clinical trial for a new therapy.”