News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Assessment system in Britain is failing medical research

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 27 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:215
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

The future of medical research in UK universities is under severe threat, because the “one size fits all” approach to allocating funding in higher education fails to take account of the nature of clinical research, the BMA warned last week.

The government's research assessment exercise, the system used to rate university departments on their research output and to allocate future funding, is “biased” against medical research, says the BMA, with generally lower ratings awarded to medical disciplines than to non-medical subjects, such as veterinary sciences.

The assessment criteria rank UK medical research only 30th in the world, despite the fact that the United Kingdom is second to the United States in terms of international output. This has sparked funding cuts for all but the highest rated university departments. The number of academic departments of anaesthesia in London has fallen from 12 in 1997 to only three, and more than a quarter of all academic posts in psychiatry have been cut.

Professor Michael Rees, head of the BMA's medical academic committee, said this was beginning to put some specialties, such as anaesthetics, radiology, and psychiatry, in grave danger. “As medical schools cut back on posts to balance their books, we face the disappearance of certain specialties from medicine departments altogether,” he said. “In radiology, departments have closed in medical schools in London, Liverpool, and Leicester, andsenior lecturers have been lost in Nottingham, Cardiff, Bristol, and Edinburgh.”

Unlike in other subjects, research in medicine requires much more team and interdisciplinary working, but the current system assesses researchers only as individuals, the BMA contends. It also discriminates against medical academics with a high clinical commitment, who may not be able to do as much research as those with no clinical workload. “It is vital this is addressed. It forms the key to the survival of craft based academic disciplines, such as surgery and obstetrics and gynaecology,” the BMA argues.

The system also fails to recognise the developmental nature of clinical research and innovation, says the BMA, meaning that impact factors are inappropriate in recognising thequality of medical research. “The impact of medical research may not be properly felt until a decade or more after it is produced,” contends the BMA. It calls for a new system that gives appropriate credit to the contribution of each piece of work to the advancement of clinical practice.

The BMA has sent its proposals to the minister for higher education, Kim Howells, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The assessment exercise is being redesigned after a review by Gareth Roberts of Wolfson College, Oxford, in 2003. This review suggested that research assessors needed greater flexibility to develop methods appropriate to different subjects.

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