We understand that for many researchers, making the leap to independent research can be a challenging time. That’s why we’ve been working to ensure we can provide our researchers with the support they need to navigate this process. Professor Moira Whyte, Head of the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Chair of the MRC’s Training and Careers Group, guides us through what we can offer to help early-career researchers in the transition.
Making the move from postdoc in someone else’s group to making your mark as an independent researcher can be a tough career stage. As noted in a recent article – The life of P.I. Transitions to Independence in Academia – early-career researchers (ECRs) face numerous barriers to securing posts, staff, time and funding. This comes at a time when they are trying to make their mark scientifically and generate the outputs that will get them recognised as leaders in their field, and we’ve heard from our own fellows, from both basic scientific and clinical backgrounds, about what a critical career stage this is.
To help, we’ve prioritised support at this career stage for a number of years, offering targeted support for ECRs who are making the transition to independence across the range of our funding: through fellowships (Career Development Awards and Clinician Scientist Fellowships), grants awarded by our research boards (New Investigator Research Grants) and through programme leader track posts in our institutes and university units.
Each of these mechanisms offers a route for ECRs to secure their own significant funding for the first time. They include support, funding and protected time for setting up their first research team and leading their own research project. The newly launched UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowships offer a further option for researchers at this career stage.
We’ve been working hard to improve our guidance for ECRs navigating their options, including clarifying the key aims and characteristics of some of these mechanisms. We’ve updated our guidance on supporting research staff development, for those supported by MRC funding. This helps postdocs prepare for the next step in becoming independent, as well as for holders of MRC awards to manage their time to include opportunities for developing and progressing.
We supported the implementation and review of the concordat for researcher development and have supported the Academy of Medical Science’s SUSTAIN programme since its inception. SUSTAIN has just recruited its third cohort, and the programme provides interactive skills training and career development sessions, tailored mentoring and the opportunity to network with research leaders.
We’ve also worked to remove barriers to research careers, removing years post-PhD as an eligibility criterion for all our schemes in 2015 – a move followed by many other funders – recognising that careers progress at different paces. Additionally, none of our schemes requires applicants to move institution (often used as a proxy measure for readiness to establish research independence in practice). Moving can create further unnecessary barriers for ECRs, many of whom are looking to negotiate transitions in their personal life as well as professionally.
In parallel, we’ve improved the provision of doctoral training through our Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs), ensuring training and experience is student-focused. At a workshop in autumn 2018 for DTP leads, the range of progress made in improving doctoral research training was exciting. Student-focused doctoral training and supporting ECRs in becoming supervisors and co-supervisors are not mutually exclusive and, as suggested at the workshop, we plan to include support and experience for ECR supervisors as metrics for future assessment of our DTPs.
More to do
We recognise that there remains much to be done. Our mechanisms offer a strong start for new principal investigators, with generous funding, protected time and prestige. But we know from our own researchers that they still face challenges negotiating this career phase.
We remain committed to supporting people flexibly through research careers, targeting critical stages, and identifying and addressing barriers to progression. And we want to ensure our funding supports ECRs in transitioning to longer-term positions. We’re also committed to increasing the diversity of individuals pursuing research careers by understanding ambitions and barriers, and plan to pilot interventions to promote and facilitate diversity over the coming year.
Our working life series and career inspirations podcast show how exciting a research career can be. We want to do our best, both to ensure no ECR we fund faces unnecessary barriers in pursuing their aspirations and to work in collaboration across the sector to recruit and retain talented individuals in science and academia.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Drug Safety Science, based at the University of Liverpool, along with Sense about Science, have jointly launched a new animation: “10½ things you may not know about side effects.”
Developed following public workshops, the animation is designed to help people learn more about side effects - why they occur, how to manage them and how medicines can be made safer by reporting them.
The 10½ things highlighted include:
- Every medicine has side effects: All medicines have side effects but are tested to check that, for most people, the benefit of taking the medicine far outweighs the side effects.
- Giving medicines the yellow card: We can all help to improve drug safety by reporting side effects. Through the MHRA Yellow Card app we can report effects we, or those we care for, have experienced.
- Food can amplify side effects: Certain foods can compromise, reverse or amplify the effects of different medications. Grapefruit juice is well known for amplifying effects, leafy greens can reverse effects and there’s such a thing as the ‘cheese reaction’.
- Herbal supplements can interact with medicines: for example, St John’s Wort interacts with 903 medicines, 264 of them seriously.
- Some side effects are beneficial: Viagra started its life as a treatment for angina, then its beneficial side effect led to it becoming the world’s most successful treatment for impotence.
By raising awareness of side-effects and what can cause them, the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science and Sense about Science hope that more people will report side effects and be better able to manage their health.
The animation and companion guide can both be downloaded by visiting www.liverpool.ac.uk/drug-safety/drug-safety/
Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, Director of the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science, said: “Medicines have helped to treat or cure numerous diseases. Yet all medicines can cause side effects. Our research centre, funded by the Medical Research Council, studies these side effects. Our work aims to improve medicines for all, by developing strategies that can predict, prevent or diagnose harm from medicines, so that we and others can make them even more beneficial and safe.”
Rebecca Asher, Deputy Director at Sense about Science, said: “People are often surprised to discover that side effects are normal. Now we have longer life expectancy and some previously fatal conditions can be managed with medicines, the need for a common understanding of what’s meant by side effects, why they happen and what to do about them is urgent."
Jane Burns, who took part in the public workshop in Liverpool, said: “The animation is brilliant, really informative. It’s important that the public know that they need to tell their doctors everything that they are taking, even herbal products, so that they have all the information. Also, patients need to be aware that it’s ok to experience some side effects, as long as the benefits outweigh any minor discomfort.”
Mick Foy, group manager for MHRA’s Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines division said: “Our priority, as regulator, is to make sure the medicines you and your family take are effective and acceptably safe. The reporting of suspected side effects is vital in helping us achieve this.
“Everyone, from healthcare professionals to patients themselves, can help make medicines safer by reporting any suspected side effects easily and quickly through our Yellow Card Scheme online or via the free mobile app.”
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) are focusing their efforts to help detect cancer earlier and significantly improve survival chances.
For most cancers, the earlier it is detected and treated, the better the outcome. Take colorectal cancer, patients diagnosed at stage 1 have over a 95% survival chance, whereas those diagnosed at stage 4 have less than 8% survival chance1 and significantly higher costs of care2. However strikingly, close to half of all cancers are diagnosed at a late stage in the UK and it’s become CRUK’s mission to drive change, support researchers in detecting cancer at the earliest possible stage, and increase survival chances. To help them achieve their ambitious goal to see three-quarters of people with cancer surviving the disease by 2034, they’ve launched a number of initiatives in this area.
To increase, encourage and support transformative cancer early detection research, CRUK has rolled out new funding specific for this field of research, including several new funding streams from £20,000 – £2.5 million. The funding committee encourages high-risk, disruptive research, as well as international and industry collaboration.
To drive innovation and novel ground-breaking research, CRUK has teamed up with EPSRC and STFC to hold a series of three-day Innovation Sandpit Workshops, where they bring together multidisciplinary researchers to develop new ideas and solutions for the biggest challenges facing the early detection of cancer field. Researchers with the best ideas walk away with £100,000 seed funding to commence the project.
CRUK is focusing on improving the translation of novel cancer diagnostics and technologies. They are actively encouraging collaboration with industry through their grants, and are connecting academics with commercial researchers through a number of mechanisms, including a series of networking events that are held in partnership with Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network.
Through the Early Detection of Cancer Conference, held in partnership with the Canary Centre at Stanford University and the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Sciences University, CRUK is bringing together researchers working on cancer early detection from across the globe. The three-day event encompasses world-leading research, novel discoveries, scientific debate and plenty of networking. The next conference will be held on 24-26 September 2019 in San Francisco.
To unite the world’s brightest minds and drive game-changing research, CRUK is launching the International Cancer Early Detection (ICED) Alliance, a virtual research centre between six lead sites in the UK and the US. The Alliance will leverage key strengths at each site, driving novel collaborative research to accelerate progress in the field.
Finally, CRUK believes that it’s crucial to encourage and support the next generation of early detection researchers. To assist them, they’ve made the early detection of cancer a priority area for their Career Development Fellowship scheme.
1Cancer Research UK, https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer/survival#ref-3, Accessed January 2019.
2Cancer Research UK (2014), Saving lives, averting costs, Cancer Research UK.
NHS England’s Chair, Lord David Prior, has welcomed the appointment of one of the country’s leading experts in genetics and personalised medicine, based at the University of Liverpool, to the organisation’s board.
Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, who is based at the University’s Institute of Translational Medicine, has been appointed by the Secretary of State as a non-executive director of NHS England. Among other posts, he is the David Weatherall Chair of Medicine and NHS Chair of Pharmacogenetics at the University, and Director of the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science and Wolfson Centre for Personalised Medicine. Professor Pirmohamed is also the Founder and Chair of the UK Pharmacogenetics & Stratified Medicine Network.
His work has seen him at the forefront of research into the personalisation and safety of medicines based on an individual’s genetic make-up, and he was awarded a Knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours in June 2015 for services to Medicine.
Lord Prior, said: “The NHS stands on the brink of being able to harness the benefits of genomic research to provide ever-more precise a2nd safe treatment for patients with a wide range of conditions. The completion of the 100,000 Genomes project puts the UK at the leading edge of a fundamental breakthrough in medical science. How we incorporate genomic medicine into the NHS, and combine genomic data with NHS data to stimulate research into further tests and treatments, is the greatest opportunity in a generation to improve the health of people in England, and indeed the rest of the world.
“As one of the world’s leading experts in this field, Professor Pirmohamed will bring invaluable knowledge and expertise to the table as we seek to make the most of this opportunity, and deliver as much benefit to patients as possible.
“I look forward to working with him and other colleagues in the New Year, as we will also be working to translate the important ambitions which will be set out in the NHS Long Term Plan into real improvements for patients in every part of England.”
Professor Pirmohamed’s appointment takes effect from 1 January 2019, for a period of three years, and was made following the established process for appointments to public boards.