Medical specialities face crisis as research funding squeezed

Some medical specialities - such as anaesthetics and radiology - are facing crisis because the higher education funding system fails to recognise the true value of medical research, the British Medical Association said today (21/1/05).

Some medical specialities - such as anaesthetics and radiology - are facing crisis because the higher education funding system fails to recognise the true value of medical research, the British Medical Association said today (21/1/05).

Under the funding mechanism - the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) - all but the highest rated university departments have had their funding withdrawn or reduced.

As a result many of the smaller speciality areas have been forced to cut back on academic staff or close departments altogether. In 1997, for instance, there were 12 academic departments of anaesthesia in London. Only three remain in 2005.

In psychiatry, over a quarter of all academic posts in the UK have been cut, and a quarter of posts in academic pathology have also been lost between 2000 and 2003.

Professor Michael Rees, head of the BMA's Medical Academic Committee, said:

"The UK is second only to the US in international medical research output, yet the RAE ranks it 30th in the world.

"The system's rating criteria are biased against medical research - and have left key specialities scrambling to survive. As medical schools cut back on posts to balance their books, we face the disappearance of certain specialities from medicine departments altogether.

"In radiology, for instance, departments have closed in medical schools in London, Liverpool and Leicester, and senior lecturers have been lost in Nottingham, Cardiff, Bristol and Edinburgh. This at a time when the NHS faces a desperate shortage of radiologists.

"All over the country lecturer posts have been lost, with a 36 % reduction in total posts since 2000. These posts are vital to train new clinical academics. Without them we are mortgaging our future.

"If action is not taken to reform the RAE, we will be plunged into a situation from which there is no return. And patients will suffer."

Unlike non-clinical subjects, medical research is based much more on team and interdisciplinary working - which is not properly recognised in RAE terms. Medical research also loses out on 'impact factor' ratings, since the effects of new research often aren't felt until years after it is completed.

The BMA has drawn up a checklist of changes to the RAE which it says must be met if the crisis in medical academia is to be halted. The Association has written to higher education minister Kim Howells, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England - which administers the RAE - with their demands.

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