Find your niche

October 7, 2005

The Medical Research Council is keen to invest in innovators willing to take risks, Colin Blakemore tells Anna Fazackerley, but he advises all young researchers to consider a career strategy

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, began his research career in a climate that was very different from, and much less ruthless than, the one that young researchers face these days.

"Things are harder now than when I started," he admits. "I really benefited from the expansion of the 1960s. Universities were appointing talented young people hand over fist and they were cheap."

Blakemore also made the most of the sort of challenges that many young academics today find unpalatable - uprooting himself for a career-boosting stint in research in the US. Nonetheless, he escaped the uncertainty that comes with a string of short-term contracts. He never held a postdoctoral position, moving instead with what he calls "embarrassing ease" from his PhD into a tenure-track position at Oxford University.

Today, he argues, the transition from a person being recognised as a "bright young thing with promise" to becoming someone a university wants on its permanent staff is more arduous than it was in his day. "I was able to concentrate entirely on research. The demands placed on young university staff are now much greater. They are expected to perform for the research assessment exercise as soon as they come in - but also to do considerable teaching and administration."

It is commonplace to hear an official talk about the need to invest in young people because they are the future of science; funding bodies, universities and politicians are well versed in these platitudes. And, of course, such rhetoric is cheap. But Blakemore insists that he takes the issue seriously. As an example, he cites his shake-up of the MRC's funding system and his introduction of New Investigator Awards in his first year in the job. The awards, which he says have been a great success, are couched in terms of experience rather than age - a gesture towards women who have dropped out of the research rat race to start a family.

"Certainly what we are aiming for in the MRC is special help for young people," he says. "I would like us to show preference for young scientists who are truly innovative and take risks."

Early this summer, the council held an event to publicise the work of some of its best young researchers studying infections and immunity. The timing coincided neatly with the media attention that focused on the needs of Africa and developing countries in the run-up to the G8 summit meeting in Edinburgh.

Blakemore set up a new board to oversee research in this area when he took over, and he stresses that this is a priority for the MRC. "Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases around the world are not simply of concern because of their threat to local populations," he points out. "Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) illustrated that these are global health issues." With resistance to therapies for diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and influenza becoming an increasing problem, the development of new drugs - Ja long and costly process - is ever more urgent.

Perhaps more important, Blakemore is aware that profit-focused pharmaceutical companies will never see the infectious diseases that threaten impoverished countries as a key area for investment, which leaves a vacuum that someone must fill.

The MRC already has research stations in The Gambia and Uganda. It is also talking with China about the possibility of more direct involvement in research in Southeast Asia. This might take the form of a joint MRC unit in infections and immunity.

But the fact that the MRC has made research of infectious diseases a priority does not mean that young researchers in the field will find it easy to secure council funding.

It is true that the council has overcome the worst of its recent problems, but success has not been without its downsides.

The gloom that hung over the MRC before Blakemore took the reins two years ago appears to have lifted, and the research community is more buoyant. He explains that the council is coming out of a trough after a much-criticised overcommitment of funds in 1999-2000. This took a long time to iron out because much of the funding was committed to five-year projects. Now there is money in the pot once again. Funding for grants has risen sharply from £85 million in 2003-04 to about £220 million in 2005-06.

But Blakemore urges caution. "The introduction of new, more flexible grant schemes has, of course, resulted in much higher demand," he warns. "We have four times as many applications as [we had] two years ago."

This means that although more money is available, the proportion of applications that the council is able to support has fallen quite dramatically.

Although researchers can do little to influence this overall funding environment, scientists starting out are not without some control over their future.

Blakemore urges young researchers to consider their positions strategically. "I think it is very important for young people to be able to establish their own identity," he says. "Unfortunately, the way science is run these days, young researchers often do a lot of the work and get their names somewhere on the papers but fail to establish their own reputation."

He advises researchers applying for jobs to investigate the recent history of the establishment's supervisors and labs to see how good they have been at allowing individuals to prosper. "The capacity for independent thought and independent management of research is very important," he stresses.

And he argues that there is a way of playing the game when it comes to winning grants. "Be canny in learning about the strategic thinking of whatever funding agency you want to apply to," he advises. "All research councils now have delivery plans - look at their priorities and see how your proposals might fit."

He adds: "Young researchers have to recognise that this is an entrepreneurial market in which you have to sell yourself to secure limited resources."

Career boosters

The MRC is the UK's largest public funder of biomedical research. It offers support for talented individuals who want to develop research careers in the biomedical sciences, public health and health services. It has a full range of personal awards schemes, each of which is tailored to particular stages in clinical or non-clinical careers. The following awards are especially appropriate for scientists at an early stage in their careers

NEW INVESTIGATOR AWARDS

Who can apply?

The awards are aimed at those researchers who are taking their first step towards becoming independent principal investigators, and applications are welcomed from those working in clinical and in non-clinical fields. The main criteria stipulate that those applying should be starting their first academic appointment or be a senior postdoctoral scientist. Those pursuing this grant are free to apply for other Medical Research Council funding schemes, but competition for the others will be more intense. The advantage of the new investigator award is that it restricts applications to those who are genuinely at the early stage of their careers.

How many awards are available?

Up to 30 awards a year.

How much money is available per award?

Up to £300,000.

How long will it last?

Usually three years.

When can I apply?

The next deadline for submission is April/May 2006 for projects due to begin in early 2007.

CLINICAL RESEARCH TRAINING FELLOWSHIP

Who can apply?

Practising medical doctors often wish to carry out specialised medical research in the biomedical sciences to add further dimensions to their careers. The MRC's Clinical Research Training Fellowships are intended to support this. These awards are available at clinical pre-doctoral/entry level, or, in some circumstances, early postdoctoral level for those who are medically qualified and obtained a PhD some time ago. The fellowships allow researchers to continue with clinical work for 20 per cent of the time and to defer during periods of concentrated clinical training.

How many awards are available?

Fifty by 2007 (37 were awarded this year). The scheme has been expanded to include Joint Fellowship Awards: these fall under the same scheme but are awarded jointly by the MRC and the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Radiologists and a number of other funding bodies.

How much money is available?

Personal salary plus research grant of up to £10,000.

How long does it last?

Up to three years.

When can I apply?

The next deadline is January 2006 (applications are received twice a year).

CLINICIAN SCIENTIST FELLOWSHIP

Who can apply?

This award is open to those who have previously obtained a PhD. It is aimed at those wishing to make the transition from postdoctoral research to independent investigation, allowing clinical researchers to consolidate their research skills. Medical or dental graduates should be at specialist registrar or consultant level.

How many awards are available?

Nine in 2006.

How much money is available?

Personal salary is covered, together with research support staff and travel costs. The award also provides the opportunity to undertake a period of research training outside the UK, for which living costs are available.

How long does it last?

Up to four years.

When can I apply?

November 2005.

CAREER DEVELOPMENT AWARD

Who can apply?

This scheme is similar to the above but for non-clinical scientists. Applicants are expected to have a PhD/DPhil and have from three to six years' postdoctoral experience. This is a highly competitive scheme - less than 10 per cent of applicants are successful.

How many awards are available?

About 12.

How much money is available?

A competitive salary, research support staff, research expenses and travel costs. Any extra overseas costs for fellows who undertake research training outside the UK are also covered.

How long does it last?

Up to four years.

When can I apply?

January 2006.

Becky McCall

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