Academy starter grants double likelihood of clinical career progression

The pivotal role that the Academy of Medical Sciences’ starter grants play in developing the next generation of clinical academic leaders has been reported in a new study published in BMJ Open.

Researchers found that early career clinicians who secured an Academy Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers were twice as likely to attain a clinical academic position after receiving the award than those who did not.

Providing up to £30,000 in research funding, the starter grants allow clinical lecturers to gather preliminary data to strengthen their bids for longer-term fellowships and funding. Over 600 clinical researchers have benefitted from the grants since the programme was established in 2008.

The study was carried out by researchers at the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR), who evaluated clinical academic career progression between 2006 and 2020 following the prestigious NIHR Clinical Lectureship (CL) programme. It found 54 per cent of CL awardees progressed on the clinical academic pathway after completing the award, with the programme successfully increasing the number of clinical academics ready to become senior research leaders of the future. The data revealed 26 per cent of NIHR CL fellows had also benefited from an Academy starter grant.

The paper finds that 68 per cent of Academy grant recipients included in the study went on to secure additional research funding during their award period. The achievements of these researchers highlight the critical value of modest but timely seed funding.

Beyond direct research costs, the grants also provide vital experience in preparing competitive proposals, and boost confidence and credibility among peers. As one clinical lecturer commented, “There is quite a level of prestige attached to them. When I contacted other people as an (Academy) Starter Grant holder they took me more seriously as well, which was very helpful.

The findings underscore key recommendations within the Academy of Medical Sciences’ recent Future-Proofing UK Health Research’ report. Released earlier this year, the report calls for increased inclusivity, flexibility and stability in research careers. It highlights precarious career paths and lack of diversity as major threats to the UK maintaining its standing as a global leader in health research.

As a core component of the effort to strengthen the clinical academic pipeline, the Academy has sought to enhance the starter grant offer by permitting applicants to apply for funding to cover the expenses of public and patient contributors. This aligns with the ‘Future-Proofing’ report’s goals around nurturing talent from all backgrounds and ensuring rewarding careers for researchers.

Professor Rosalind Smyth CBE FMedSci, Vice President (Clinical) of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “The achievements of our Starter Grant recipients demonstrate what is possible when we provide critical support at the right time. These grants are designed to give early career academics one of their first grants and enable them to build much larger successful applications. The Academy is fully committed to driving this progress.”

Funding from an Academy Starter Grant enabled Professor Catriona Waitt to develop a dried breast milk spot assay to measure drugs in breast milk, undertake a cultural feasibility and acceptability study in Uganda, and produce the world’s first well-characterised data on what happens to the drug in the body for several anti-retroviral drugs. With this data she successfully applied for a career development fellowship to continue her research.

Professor Waitt said: “The Academy Starter Grant was the most pivotal grant in my career. It opened doors to change direction after my PhD. I would not be doing what I am doing if I had not received that grant.”

The NIHR study was conducted in partnership with the Academy of Medical Sciences, Health Education England, University of Leeds and University of Birmingham. It utilised data on clinical lecturers funded by the NIHR, which attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges.

Recommendations from the study include improving post-award opportunities, better support for clinical lecturers during the transition to independence and addressing key barriers that hinder individuals from reaching their full potential as research leaders.

Pete Thompson, Director of NIHR Academy Programmes said: "The NIHR Clinical Lectureship was established to overcome barriers identified for doctors and dentists in specialty training to pursue clinical academic careers by integrating academic training within clinical training. It is positive to hear that the majority of CL awardees felt it helped them to achieve their aims and that over half progressed to a clinical academic role on completion of their award.

"The NIHR, alongside key partners such as the Academy of Medical Sciences, play a pivotal role in supporting healthcare professionals to include research in their careers and help them develop as highly skilled researchers and research leaders."

The Academy’s Starter Grants for Clinical Lecturers programme is funded by Wellcome, UKRI Medical Research Council, British Thoracic Society, British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK, Versus Arthritis, Association of Physicians of GB & Ireland and Prostate Cancer UK.

The next window for Starter Grant applications opens in January 2024, with all eligible early-career clinical academics encouraged to apply for this prestigious and high-impact programme.

Applicants can participate in the Academy's one-to-one mentoring programme, which pairs post-doctoral and independent biomedical and health researchers with Academy Fellows, irrespective of the outcome of their application.

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