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The concept of NIHR Incubators


17 May 2021


1.0 May 2021



The NIHR Academy builds and sustains research capacity to allow us collectively to address current and future health and care challenges. There are many reasons why research capacity may not be sufficient for the needs of a field. These include:

  • Rapid development of an area or technology with capacity building activity lagging behind
  • Insufficient people entering the field in the first place because of a lack of awareness, interest and/or opportunity
  • Issues around retention within a field meaning that people do not progress from an early opportunity (masters or PhD level) to late (Advanced Fellowships and beyond)

Previously, NIHR Training operated on a purely response mode basis. Although highly successful in terms of overall application numbers, fill rates and progression rates (as well as trainee satisfaction) this approach did not address the capacity challenges in a number of key areas. The NIHR Strategic Review of Training identified this as an issue and recommended the development of a more strategic approach to increasing capacity in key areas. One key recommendation was for the development of NIHR Incubators as an approach to targeted capacity development in areas of strategic need and importance.

Introduction to NIHR Incubators

NIHR Incubators are intended to provide a spotlight on a particular research area, discipline or profession that is of strategic need to NIHR and that will benefit from some additional community led support to help boost academic research capacity. They are intended to help where there is a recognised issue with research capacity that needs a community driven approach to make a difference. Often the difficulties around building academic research capacity in a particular field will be recognised but not well understood. The first role of any incubator is to bring the key stakeholders and partners in a field together for them to drive forward the identification and understanding of barriers to academic research capacity development. This is the first step in the aim of building identifiable communities and developing bespoke approaches to supporting career development where critical mass is low.

Important concepts underpinning the incubator model

There are several key concepts that underpin the incubator model:

  • Incubator status is, first and foremost, recognition by the NIHR that an area is of strategic importance and that increased research capacity is needed.
  • Incubators will need to be bespoke as the nature and scale of the challenges in different fields vary significantly. For example, some areas are new and emerging with small numbers of early career researchers who would benefit from networking, peer support and mentorship, whilst other areas struggle to attract people into academic pathways and mechanisms that raise awareness and promote the benefits of research would work well here.
  • To be successful incubators will need to be field-led. Although the NIHR Academy can provide some support, the very individual nature of the challenges in different fields mean that solutions have to be developed and delivered by the leaders within the field. If leaders in the field do not think that an incubator is the correct model then it is unlikely to be successful.
  • Bringing together the community in this way provides an opportunity to explore the challenges experienced by those working in the field. Why is there a capacity issue? Is it that we are failing to attract people or are we losing people because of blocks in the career pathways? Working in partnership with the NIHR Academy will be key to develop meaningful interventions that will build capacity in the future.
  • The concept of critical mass is key. One issue in small fields can be a sense of isolation felt by trainees. Linking together of different centres can increase the sense of community felt by trainees and increase the training opportunity. This critical mass development lies at the heart of what we feel incubators can provide.
  • The NIHR Academy and the broader NIHR already offer a wide range of personal awards and pathway support schemes. The issue that the incubator areas share is the low number of people attempting to access that support. Another key aspect of the incubator concept is therefore better access to current funding opportunities.
  • Experience suggests that perceptions regarding the current training community size and nature can sometimes differ from the reality. Mapping data is therefore a key part of the incubator process and represents an important part of the NIHR Academy support to nascent incubators.
  • Both the incubator concept in general, and individual incubators specifically, represent an innovative approach to solving what are often quite deep-rooted problems. It is anticipated that not all incubators will succeed, and the question of whether an incubator is the appropriate model in any area should be kept under review. All incubators should be time-limited as a failure to change the capacity issues in an area within a reasonable time frame suggests that other approaches should be considered.
  • NIHR will provide support for individual incubators for a period of three years. Experience from the first year of NIHR Incubators suggests that it may be helpful to consider a broad framework for the three years as: year 1, undertaking discussions about what the key issues are that need addressing in the field; year 2, trialling some interventions to address the issues; year 3, assessing whether the interventions had the desired effect.
  • Success of the incubators will vary due to the bespoke nature of each one. Each incubator should therefore establish key performance indicators which will gauge the impact of activity.

If the incubator approach is successful for a particular area, in order for the concept to work in the long term it is important that the interventions introduced are sustainable. Therefore as part of the work of an individual incubator it is important to consider the different partners who can help ensure interventions are sustainable long term. This could include identifying organisations who are able to co-fund certain activities or provide additional in-kind support.