Intended for healthcare professionals


Surgeons' college launches campaign to save research

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 06 November 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1221
  1. Katherine Burke
  1. London

    The Royal College of Surgeons of England is launching a campaign to save surgical research after learning that up to one in five university chairs of surgery across the United Kingdom are currently vacant.

    The college is calling for research councils to view grant applications from surgeons more favourably and to put money aside specifically for fellowships for the profession. The government should also provide more funding to university departments of surgery instead of giving the lion's share of money to the more fashionable area of biomedical sciences, the college says.

    According to college estimates, at least 10 surgery professorships—including posts at Glasgow, Manchester, and London—are unfilled, and the top post of regius professor of surgery at Edinburgh University has remained vacant for the past 18 months.

    “I'm predicting that there will be very few, if any, surgical professors in the next 10-15 years, and surgical research may fold completely,” said Professor Peter Bell, chairman of the research board of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, at a conference in London last week.

    “We are trying to highlight the problems facing surgical research—decreasing numbers of people applying for academic surgery posts and difficulties getting funding. We want to get the grant giving organisations to recognise the problems surgeons have in getting money for research and to support them better.”

    Professors of surgery are under increasing pressure from their trusts to do a set number of elective operations each year and from their universities to publish in biomedical journals with the highest impact factors, the conference heard.

    Mr Gordon Carlson, a Medical Research Council senior clinical fellow and an honorary consultant surgeon at Hope Hospital in Salford, told delegates that his department receives little hard funding from government and research councils because he cannot get his work published in biomedical journals.

    He pointed out that the top surgical journal had the same impact factor as the 25th ranking molecular biology journal, because articles by surgeons were cited less often by other researchers.

    “We are hamstrung by research assessment exercises, and departments are getting by on soft money rather than channelling their energies into hard money,” said Mr Carlson. “I'm expected to publish in the highest impact factor journal—for example, Nature. I should be so lucky, and my colleagues don't read it.

    “The Higher Education Funding Council needs to produce a system of research quality assessment which reflects the fact that not all areas of research are equally fashionable,” he added.

    The profession also needed a more flexible training structure so that surgeons could pursue their academic and clinical interests side by side, the royal college said. Hospitals should allow more surgeons to work part time instead of making them take a two or three year break for research, which could mean that they lost their skills.

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    UK research into surgery is in danger as 10 surgery professorships remain unfilled.