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NIHR Academy: building on our strengths to secure a healthier future

Published: 11 January 2019


The NIHR Academy was launched in October. In this blog, NIHR lead and Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Professor Chris Whitty, explains how the NIHR Academy will support research capacity development now and in the future.

As we pass 70 years of the NHS, it’s useful to remember that early career researchers entering the new NIHR Academy today will reach their research peak in around 30 years. This will be as we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NHS.

Health research is essential if we are to improve the NHS and wider health and public health system for all of us as citizens. Over the last century, medical science has had a remarkable impact in health in the UK and globally. We only need to look at rates of circulatory diseases - which peaked in the 1950s at 600 and 800 per 100,000 people for women and men, respectively, but which fell to historically low levels over the succeeding 60 years to under 200 per 100,000 - to see the impact and importance of health research. This improvement was built on multiple bits of research, properly applied. Without excellent research, health in the UK will improve slowly or not at all.

The data we have both from Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact statements and patent data suggest that even when new research, medication and devices are published or patented, it takes about 15 years before the benefits are felt widely. That means today’s NIHR Academy researchers will, at the peak of their careers, be influencing health and social care in this country and beyond for up to 50 years, providing the foundations for further research past 2070.

It is therefore essential that in health and social care research we take the long view. The NIHR must respond to a changing world, and plan ahead to ensure research needs are met to improve the health and wealth of the nation, not just now, but in the decades to come.

The NIHR Academy

The new NIHR Academy, launched in October, will play a pivotal role in readying the NHS and wider health research workforce for the future. The Academy aims to simplify, and enhance what the NIHR can do for health research training and careers. It brings together many small schemes which were often difficult to navigate into larger, simpler ones. It launches a number of new initiatives to help areas and professions which were underserved or neglected. It co-locates all those throughout the academic pathway, from first-year researchers in training, through mid-career researchers, on to Research Professors and the Senior Investigators at the peak of their careers.

Above all it looks to the challenges of the future, many of which are predictable in an ageing population, and the scientific avenues which are opening up including large data analysis and genomics.

Future challenges and opportunities

We can already see many of the health challenges that will need to be faced in the coming years. For example, an ageing population in the UK will mean increased multimorbidity, so we must start to tackle the predictable clusters of disease that contribute to this. Building research capacity to tackle health challenges around these clusters will be a key aim of the NIHR Academy.

An ever growing quantity of data is becoming available to researchers, and the NIHR Academy will also run training in Health Data Science so that the research community is able to take advantage of these huge data sets by applying contemporary and evolving data science approaches to address the most pressing health research challenges facing the public. We are working with Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) to do this.

Research themes in historically underserved areas such as mental health, public health and social care will be prioritised. We will also enhance the remarkable role that allied health professions, nursing and other professions play in the delivery of healthcare by supporting research skills and careers for these professionals.

Strategic Approach

This will be further developed by the introduction of Incubators, supporting capacity building and multidisciplinary career development in priority areas where critical mass is low.

For example we know that nurses face greater obstacles than other professions in developing research careers. There are fewer clinical academic opportunities in nursing than in many other, comparable health professions, in part because research culture is not as strong.

Unlike, say, in the clinical medical profession, nurses with the potential to develop careers in academic research are often not encouraged to do so by the healthcare or academic system. This is something we will look to address through the development of incubators in several areas such as primary care, public health, social care, health data science, nursing and emergency care.

NIHR Academy, an overview of some of the changes

Collaboration and networking

The new NIHR Academy will be proactive in targeting underrepresented professions to apply for its Fellowships including Nurses, Midwives and Pharmacists. Building research capacity throughout multiple health professions, and facilitating networking across disciplines, will be vital to ensuring a robust research community.

It has also partnered with seven leading charities to fund Fellowships in specific areas. These partnership Fellowships will open up enormous benefits to award holders, helping them to build links with service providers, patients and the public, and further develop and improve research in key strategic areas.

Simplified and flexible programmes

NIHR Academy programmes have been consolidated to better suit the changing needs of today’s researchers.

Post-doctoral awards have been made more flexible by simplifying our eligibility criteria to so that Advanced Fellowships are available to researchers at more career stages. Furthermore, the application process now offers greater flexibility to applicants with the option of applying at two different times of the year.

There is now greater emphasis placed on career development alongside funding, so that award holders can access high quality support to help them look ahead and plan their future career direction.

Finally, for many programmes successful applicants will be able to complete their award at part- or full-time.

Strategic prioritisation

Since its inception, developing research capacity has been a key aim of the NIHR. In the last ten years we have produced a fantastic cohort of researchers who are not only leaders in their fields, but are also leaders for NIHR, and who are crucial to developing future generations.

But we do not intend to stop there. The NIHR Academy is increasing capacity in areas where the need for research is greatest, whether because there aren’t enough researchers in a field, or - as with health data science - because we need to ensure that more researchers develop specific skills.

To achieve this, the NIHR Academy is encouraging Fellowship applications that fall into certain themes including:

  • Social care
  • Mental health
  • Public health
  • Health data science

This is a very short introduction to a much wider change. We would encourage you to find out more about the NIHR Academy, and how it can support health research and your career in improving health in the UK.

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