UK Research and teaching in medical schools under threat

The way medical research is funded has led to an exodus of academic staff from medical schools, the chairman of the BMA's Medical Academic Committee said today (Tuesday 25 May).

In a speech to the BMA's annual conference of medical academics, Professor Michael Rees said that the competitive model used to allocate research funding has distorted the priorities of medical schools and devalued the role of teaching. Coupled with a lack of career security, the pressure on academic staff resulting from the funding system is driving doctors away from teaching and research, he warned.

"In some universities academic staff are subject to enormous pressure to achieve unattainable goals and if they fail their jobs and livelihoods can be threatened. This sets a very poor role model and it is unsurprising that young intelligent doctors are not seeking academic careers. We are gravely concerned at the speed at which some specialties are leaving or are being driven out of academic medicine. Soon we might contemplate a future where we have no academic surgeons, anaesthetists, radiologists or pathologists."

The warning comes as a new report published by the Council of Heads of Medical Schools reveals that numbers of clinical academic staff in U.K. medical and dental schools fell by 15% between 2000 and 2003. Despite the decline in numbers of teaching staff, numbers of medical students are rising.

Under the current system, universities are rated on the quality of their research, and funded accordingly. Professor Rees said that it is right for good research to be rewarded, but that the system does not take into account medical academics' work in the NHS, the importance of teaching, or the need for career flexibility - particularly for female staff.

"It is comparatively rare for women in academic medicine to be promoted, and very few medical academic staff are promoted on the strength of their teaching contribution."

In order to address the staffing shortages, Professor Rees called for a more transparent funding system, a shift in emphasis to take account of the value of clinical research, and an improved career planning model for academic staff.

The full text of the speech is available from the BMA Press Office.

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