The Government has recognised widely held fears over the future of academic medicine and dentistry by announcing a new strategy to boost clinical academic careers this week.
The number of clinical academics has dropped from 4,000 in 2001 to 3,500 today and there has been a 30 per cent fall in the number of clinical lecturers. Public health medicine, psychiatry, pathology and anaesthetics have been badly hit.
Last year, the Chancellor earmarked £200 million a year for clinical research in his science budget, with the creation of a joint Medical Research Council/ Department of Health group to help set priorities.
Now a new report from a subcommittee of the group, chaired by Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, sets out a clear training path for doctors and dentists aimed at removing obstacles to taking up academic careers.
David Gordon, chair of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools and subcommittee member, said: "When a medical school is seeking to make a new appointment in almost any area there is a shortage of expert applicants."
He added: "The crucial thing will be for the DoH and other funding bodies to produce enough money to implement this."
Launching the report, Health Minister Lord Warner said: "It is critical for research and patients to reverse the decline in the numbers of academic clinicians at a time when the UK is producing more doctors than ever."
The report, published on Wednesday, concludes that doctors and dentists are being put off academia by the absence of a clear career path, the lack of flexibility both geographically and in the balance of clinical and academic training, and the shortage of structured and supported posts on completion of training.
It calls for dedicated academic training programmes developed in partnership with universities and the National Health Service.
These should consist of two phases: an academic clinical fellowship, leading to an externally funded training fellowship and a higher degree; and a clinical lectureship phase, which would lead to a certificate of completion of training and provide opportunities for postdoctoral experience.
All those appointed to the programmes would be given an academic national training number, the holy grail of the medical research world, which guarantees a consultant position after training. But there would also be two-year half-clinical, half-academic posts with well-defined academic content to help GPs enter academic life.