Professor Brendan McCormack, Executive Member – Research
As the largest representative of UK university faculties engaged in higher education and research for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, the Council of Deans of Health decided to prioritise research strategy and policy as a conference focus in 2020. The Council’s first research strategy conference took place at Woburn House, London in February. Attended by approximately 150 delegates, the conference engaged participants in critical discussions about contemporary research challenges in nursing, midwifery and the allied health professions.
If ever any of us were in doubt about the challenging context we are now operating in as researchers, I think the conference brought that into sharp focus. We were delighted that Professor Paul Boyle, Vice Chancellor at Swansea University and Chair of University UK’s Research Policy Network (previously Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and President of Science Europe, representing over 50 European funding agencies), gave the keynote address. Paul outlined the funding landscape of research in the UK and Europe and highlighted benefits that UK research and researchers have enjoyed through its strong position in Europe. Considering the fact that UK funding of research has flatlined for more than 10 years now, the impact of Brexit on the UK research funding landscape became all too real! The relationship between building economic growth and structural funds for research is going to be a critical issue for the UK as the ‘tectonic plates’ of UK funding start to move and change shape – where they land and what kind of landscape will be formed as a result is difficult to predict. But one thing is clear, the rich pickings of European funding that has been available are unlikely to be matched by whatever pot is found by the UK Government.
In the recent report Changes and Choices commissioned by the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sir Adrian Smith and Professor Graeme Reid consider what needs to happen for the UK to retain its position of strength in international research collaboration and innovation – they conclude that a ‘bold new vision for research and innovation’ is needed. Despite the recent creation of UKRI and the Government’s commitment to raise overall levels of R&D investment in the UK to 2.4% of GDP (a commitment that has been made many times in the past but has not materialised!), the scale of loss of funding by the UK exiting from Horizon Europe is troubling and its knock-on effect on international collaboration as yet unknown. Smith and Reid suggest:
“Taken together, funding for stabilisation, protection and wider forms of international collaboration would be at about the same scale as this country has received in the past from participation in EU programmes – around £1.5bn per annum. Our recommendations are based on the availability of at least that level of funding”.
The realities of that level of funding materialising are hard to imagine, especially as it competes with other demands for increases in public sector funding. One consideration arising from this changed landscape for all of us I guess is, ‘how can we become more efficient in our research endeavours’ to maximise research investments and funding and ensure that excellent collaborative research is still being undertaken. An interesting issue that arose during the conference in this respect was that of the lack of ‘repeated research’. So much research undertaken is ‘one-off project’ type research that is rarely repeated or replicated and thus the potential to systematically build on, refine, further develop and most importantly scale efficiently is hardly ever achieved. This area of consideration raises interesting issues for all of us in terms of interdisciplinarity in research and what that might mean as we go forward, as well as how we assess academic careers and the contribution academics make to research programmes. These are important issues for us to give some attention to as a community of nursing, midwifery and allied health professional researchers and to ‘future proof’ available funding to maximise impact.
Of course, this changing funding and infrastructure landscape provides the macro context for the day to day operational issues that all of us face in our work. Many of the issues debated at the conference have been rehearsed many times before – the insecure employment status of clinical academics; the invisibility of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions research discussions among Executive Boards of health providers; the lack of career structures that enable interdisciplinary collaboration; the lack of capacity and capability building as an integral part of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions careers; and insufficient attention being given to the ‘supply chain’ of research that would maximise the impact of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions research on the health of the nation. Having the space to debate these issues at a single event proved to be a useful experience for all of us present and it certainly highlighted for me key issues that the Council needs to prioritise in future research strategies, including:
- A more assertive approach to making the case for sufficient funding for nursing, midwifery and allied health professions research that demonstrates our interdisciplinary approach and our impact on population health.
- Demonstrating the contribution of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions research to economic growth and the health economy in particular.
- Ensuring that career pathways are more inclusive of research careers and reflect diverse career development pathways and opportunities.
- Advocate for the creation of a more level playing field for nursing, midwifery and allied health professions researchers in all aspects of our activity including time for research among academics; clinical academic role parity with other professions; and equal opportunity of access to research funding for nursing, midwifery and allied health professions researchers across the whole of the UK.
Overall however, I came away with a sense of hope that we are capable of making some progress with these agendas. It is crystal clear that many of the key organisations and representative bodies (such as the Council of Deans of Health, Academy of Medical Sciences and the National Institute for Health Research) are all saying the same thing about the state of the current landscape and the key challenges and thus we should be capable of collaborating for a common solution. Joined-up action is needed if we are to be in any way successful in dealing with the challenges that Brexit and associated changing political priorities present to us. I am delighted that the Council is at the heart of these discussions, working with our members to make an impact.