Fast-track Liverpool fellows free to focus on research

Early career life scientists have teaching and administrative burden lifted

January 16, 2014

Source: Alamy

Eyes only for work: Liverpool’s fellowship scheme helps early career researchers to gain a foothold in academia

The University of Liverpool has rolled out a new scheme to support early career researchers in its Faculty of Health and Life Sciences by lifting the burden of teaching and administrative work.

To help researchers gain a foothold in academia, a series of subject-specific fellowships have been created to allow academics in junior posts to focus on their research. Schemes targeting early career researchers are increasingly being considered at other institutions, with other examples including the University of Birmingham’s Birmingham Fellows programme, unveiled in 2011.

Liverpool’s initiative is part-funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Institutional Strategic Support Fund, a pot of money designed to support institutional strategies for biomedical sciences.

Under the scheme, the Wellcome Trust has awarded £750,000 a year to Liverpool since 2011, with the university matching that amount. Discussion within the faculty about how best to use the funds led to the decision to support early career researchers, said Bob Burgoyne, associate executive pro vice-chancellor and faculty lead for research and knowledge exchange, who led the bid.

Professor Burgoyne said: “We were concerned that it is a very tough, competitive environment for getting external funding. We wanted to help the people who were at the intermediate stage between postdoctoral researcher and fully independent career academic.”

The faculty has researchers following several different career tracks, and Professor Burgoyne and his colleagues have developed three tailored fellowship programmes to suit the specific groups.

The first is a five-year tenure-track fellowship for scientists, which leads to a permanent academic post. It is designed to lessen the large amounts of teaching and administrative work that can often fall on researchers appointed to university lectureships. During these early years, researchers are expected to develop an independent research portfolio on top of those responsibilities, which can make the first two or three years in post tough.

To address this problem, the fellowships protect researchers from teaching and administration in the first three years. The faculty also awards start-up funding of £15,000 a year during this period. The researchers, Professor Burgoyne noted, “are automatically reviewed in their third year for a permanent position that we have earmarked from the start of the fellowship”.

The posts are advertised externally and there are a “high number of good-quality applicants”, he said. The selection committee awarded the two most recent fellowships to researchers from Yale University, he added.

The other types of fellowship are advertised to junior clinical and veterinary lecturers already working in the faculty. Successful applicants get funding to cover their teaching work, which enables them to focus on research.

For clinicians, a fellowship allows them to concentrate on research for six months to a year so that they can secure larger research grants in the future and progress to senior roles.

Time and funds to work

This was the case for Melissa Gladstone, now a senior lecturer in paediatric neurodisability and international child health at Liverpool.

Her fellowship allowed her time off from teaching to set up a research project in Malawi. It also provided a salary for a research coordinator to manage her work in the African country while she was in the UK.

The fellowship has set Dr Gladstone on a path to apply for a half a million pound grant for a clinical trial in Malawi in the years ahead. The trial will continue her work on whether public health measures can improve child health in countries such as Malawi, where 45 per cent of children have stunted growth. Dr Gladstone said that the research funded by the scheme played a part in securing her senior lecturer post in November 2013.

Meanwhile, for lecturers in the School of Veterinary Science, the onus is on providing the opportunity to develop research careers over the course of a two-year fellowship. Eithne Comerford, senior lecturer in small animal orthopaedics, said that her fellowship offered her a “fantastic opportunity” to broaden her research.

Funding is also available through the scheme to provide short-term support for postdoctoral researchers who are between grants.

So far, Liverpool’s early career support scheme has supported 25 of its researchers, with a second round of fellowships for clinical and veterinarian lecturers planned. The faculty is also moving to convert all new lectureship posts to the tenure-track model, Professor Burgoyne added.

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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