Emerging leaders in research innovation

This article was written by Caroline Canavan, MRC Population Health Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and a current intern at the Academy, following a celebration event for current and past awardees of our Clinician Scientist Fellowships scheme.

Cast your mind back to 2000.... Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the height of his popularity, Alan Shearer retired from International football, the Queen Mother turned 100 and “Can We Fix It?” by Bob the Builder was the biggest selling single of the year. 

"Can we fix it?" was also the question we posed in 2000 with our publication The tenure-track Clinician Scientist: a new career pathway to promote recruitment to academic medicine, where we outlined our response to the Savill Report into the vanishing number of clinical academics, and launched our Clinician Scientist Fellowship (CSF) scheme in partnership with the Health Foundation

The resounding answer of "Yes we can" was chorused last week here at the Academy at an event which Professor Sir John Tooke PMedSci described as "a celebration of a fabulous scheme and a way of publicly thanking and acknowledging the Health Foundation for their support".

We were thrilled to invite current fellows and alumni of the scheme to join key decision makers from across the medical sciences to scan the horizon of clinical academic careers and be inspired by the career of the Keynote Speaker, Professor Urban Ungerstedt, Emeritus Professor at Karolinska Institute. 

Leading the horizon scanning discussions were Professor Sir John Tooke PMedSci, Professor Dame Sally Davies DBE FRS FMedSci, Sir Mark Walport FRS FMedSci, Dr Duncan Richards, Sir Alan Langlands FRSE FMedSci and Professor Peter Johnson FMedSci, who have each been instrumental in changing the landscape of clinical academic careers beyond recognition over the last 15 years.

The CSF scheme is truly promoting excellence, in line with our aims as an Academy. Over four rounds of funding, a total of £14.6 million has supported 26 awardees, generating 386 publications, 37 prizes, 6 professorships and 100% of those finishing the scheme have secured follow-on funding, currently exceeding £55 million. Sir John reflected that this was "a tremendous set of achievements. This scheme has done a huge amount to put these clinician scientists on the map".

Despite the remarkable progress that has been made in the career pathway for clinical academics, our speakers added a few words of caution. One of the biggest challenges they all saw now and moving forward was regarding flexibility of training and career pathways.

Improved flexibility is needed to optimally balance the demands of an active research portfolio and clinical practice. It is needed across disciplines to encourage and promote interdisciplinary learning, a skill that will be essential for the research of the future, and it is also going to be increasingly important across sectors, joining academia with industry and the NHS.

Even though there remain challenges ahead, these remain exciting times for medical science, as Sir Mark pointed out, "We’re at an amazing moment for medical science, there are challenges to the way medicine is practiced, and we [as clinical academics] need to anticipate rather than simply respond to this; we need to lead the change rather than resist it".

Flexibility was also something picked up by Professor Ungerstedt as he walked us through his fascinating career. He urged that, "Flexibility is a path to freedom; you can never map out a career, it can take many turns. You should encourage this".  

He described his diverse career from the "freedom years" of dopamine mapping in a laboratory with no senior researchers; through the "commercial years", where he developed the machinery to conduct microdialysis and set up a company that would eventually trade in 28 countries; to his "Nobel years", where he chaired the Nobel Prize committee that awarded Professors Carlsson, Greengard and Kandel the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their work in dopamine.

He concluded by encouraging "scientists...to speak up.  You have three jobs: research, education and speaking to society....and we need to have space for serendipity, you don’t just cure cancer by setting out to do it".

This celebration of the CSF scheme made us reflect, Professor Ungerstedt is right, to be a scientist one needs ‘luck, passion, independence, peers and role models’, but the final word should go to Dame Sally: "The future is in our hands; go and do it".

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