Let us reap what we've sown

August 5, 2005

The fellowship funding system is at risk of losing much of the talent it has nurtured, warns Keith Gull

Throughout their careers most scientists yearn for an independent source of funding with the freedom to pursue research. Research councils and medical charities all employ the funding tactic of "backing the individual". This career option has grown over the past 20 years into the preferred route for many talented academics. The number in this cohort has grown, and with it the difficulties of handling their exit from fellowships.

In a recent review that I chaired for the Academy of Medical Sciences we questioned whether research fellowships are still fit for purpose. In preparing our report, The Freedom to Succeed , we encountered enormous contrasts. We spoke to funding agencies closely in touch with their fellows and others with little ongoing contact and virtually no knowledge of their success or failure. The lack of published statistics was a consistent complaint from fellows. All accepted that the fellowship route was highly competitive, for entry and renewal. Obfuscation through lack of published statistics led to Chinese whispers about the processes and encouraged universities to neglect their responsibilities.

Some university departments had excellent career planning with clear procedures for exit to an appropriate position at that or another institution. Unfortunately many fellows enjoyed no such support. If this triangulation between the fellow, the funder and the university is not made more productive then there are dangers ahead. We conclude that the best way forward is for a financial partnership between the funder and university with clear timelines and planning. The good practice seen in a few universities is best spread to the majority by this means. Without this integration of fellows' careers into UK academia we are in danger of developing excellent biomedical researchers and then losing them from the academic system.

Funding procedures in the last research assessment exercise that allowed assessment of fellows as full members (category A staff) but did not fund them as such have inhibited career planning and departmental integration of fellows. This must change and the Higher Education Funding Council for England needs to make a specific statement about the situation before the next RAE submissions are prepared. Leaving talented researchers to the whims of a blind bidding game not only distorts the assessment of biomedical science research in the UK but is a pernicious driver in the fellow's career and their relationship with the host university.

Many of the fellows we talked to viewed the prospect of a career in industry as unattractive. Effective connection with this cohort is a challenge for UK industry and we make recommendations about developing such relationships. Also, those critical of their institution often viewed their fellowship as "buying them out" of the ill-managed teaching and administrative load endured by lecturer colleagues. They showed no antipathy towards teaching - just towards poor management.

There are more than 500 independent research fellows in the system, and the approach has been highly effective. However, while it is clearly not broke, it could benefit from a little bit of fixing.

Keith Gull is professor of molecular microbiology, Oxford University.

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