The 8th CHOP “Hot Topics” meeting was once again held at the excellent venue of the University of Manchester’s Chancellors Conference Centre, on 19-20 April. This was, for the third year, run jointly with our Physiology colleagues, and the meeting was hosted by Clive Orchard (new Chair of Committee of Heads of Physiology) and Brenda Costall (Chair of CHOP). As a new venture, the meeting started before lunch on the Tuesday, with the business being conducted over two half days, rather than packed into one, as previously. This seemed to work well, with a relaxed schedule and no premature rush for trains, planes and automobiles to get home, as in past years!

The first session of the afternoon was on “Translational Research” (TR), with a subtitle of “sexy title for preclinical and clinical pharmacology?” While many of us probably thought that this is exactly what TR is about, i.e. ‘advancing molecules into medicines’ Donna Johnstone (Discovery Medicine Director (Cancer and Infection) at AstraZeneca, described how TR is designed to make “go/no go” decisions much earlier in the drug development process than hitherto. TR pulls together a wide range of technology platforms such as genomics, proteomics, genetics and functional imaging for the identification of drug target actions, which can then be applied in the clinic as a ‘biomarker’. Acceleration of the process is achieved by going straight into volunteers to look for effects on the specific biomarker, before patient involvement. At the heart of effective TR is enhancing industrial/academic links, particularly in the form of seconding clinical fellows into industry, placement of postdocs into the laboratories of leading academics who are developing the biomarkers to be used in patients. Donna also explored the attributes required of a translational scientist: In essence, the individual has to be a generalist, not a specialist (reminiscent of what was once described by Gaddum as the ‘Jack of all trades’ nature of the pharmacologist). Skills include good scientific and technological knowledge; ability to link between laboratory work and the clinic; ability to interpret clinical data; excellent interpersonal and communication skills across disciplines. The possession of in vivo skills by graduates (or at least a willingness to be trained) was also considered a positive attribute.

Following Donna’s highly illuminating presentation and the opportunity for further discussion after tea, we returned to a two-hour session on “How can we keep young people in academic research”. This was kicked off by presentations from two young lecturers (Caroline Dart from the University of Leicester and Morgan Denyer from the University of Bradford). Although their paths to permanent lectureships had been rather different, there was considerable commonality in their observations concerning the road to independence, from a post-doc to becoming a lecturer. Very telling was Caroline’s observation that, in 1979, there were 6,000 contract research staff (CRSs) in UK universities. By 1996 this had increased to 33,000, but was accompanied by a mere 2% increase in academic posts. It was commented that Research Council and charity fellowships were not well matched to the typical training of a post-doc, i.e. after a couple of post-doc positions, an individual may be too old for an intermediate fellowship, but it is much too soon for a senior fellowship. The RCUK Fellowship scheme will probably go some way to alleviate this, but it is early days yet. Although both speakers came across as obviously enjoying academic life, when thinking about ‘why academics leave’, they highlighted the pressures within their own institutions to perform; non-transparent, tortuous career progression; increasing administrative and teaching loads and a general lack of time.

The feedback from the deliberations of the subsequent break out groups, yielded some frank discussion. Fundamentally, it was felt that there is no real problem with keeping young people in academic research – the stellar, highly motivated post-docs will always get positions. However, there is a major problem with there being too many post-docs in relation to current and likely availability of permanent academic posts. It was also considered that universities support post-docs very poorly. Typical of the many similar comments included:

  • We know that 9 out of 10 post-docs will not get permanent academic positions. Are they in denial?
  • Many post-docs do not realise that they are not good enough and that academics are not good at telling them.
  • In some areas there is a real shortage of good post-doc candidates to fill lectureship positions.
  • Post-docs need to hit the ground running from day one - few do.
  • Post-docs need to take responsibility for their own career development.
  • If post-docs are not stellar during their first position, they should be out.
  • We need to open the eyes of PhDs to other careers, and post docs that are not going to progress to academic careers need to be assisted with pathways out of academia.

There the first day’s business ended and we were treated to an excellent dinner followed by a highly illuminating and amusing after dinner reminiscence by John Fozard (Novartis).

Day two began at a civilized 9.30 a.m. with pretty serious stuff: Full Economic Costing (or FEC). If my experience at Bristol is typical, most HoDs will have had presentations, fora, and workshops ad nauseam on this vital, but intrinsically dull, topic. So, expecting to drift into a stupor at the prospect of three presentations, I found it a pleasure to have these negative thoughts confounded. Steve Visscher (Executive Director, BBSRC), Jim Port (JM Consulting, who designed the TRAC methodology which highlighted how all universities were making a deficit on research, however funded), and Mike Collis (Pfizer, & ABPI Academic Liaison Committee) each gave talks of great clarity. While the mechanics of FEC are now fairly clear (it needs to be, with just the summer before implementation), I suspect most of us lacked any knowledge of how the pharmaceutical industry would approach FEC. The ABPI has very reasonable concerns about defining what constitutes industrially supported academic research that is ‘in the public good’ and that which is not (the latter to attract 100% overheads).

Mike Collis indicated that a ‘one size fits all’ model would not work; that there was not an industrial pot of gold out there, and (apart from contract research, which pays the going rate) there needed to be a flexible and realistic approach to industrial funding, whereby reasonable overhead costs would be paid for collaborative research projects. The pharmaceutical industry already contributes a great deal in direct funding of studentships and fellowships (almost £62 million in 2003) and makes other substantive contributions in the form of access to technologies and novel compounds, intellectual input and large numbers of student placements (both graduate and undergraduate). Mike entered a plea that the Research Councils should not apply FEC to CASE studentships; the consequence of this would be to drive down volume. There was also a need for the Research Councils to significantly increase their contribution for consumables, as this was currently completely inadequate.

There was considerable discussion and questioning (some decidedly sceptical) of the 3 speakers. Some of the key points raised - though there are no definitive answers yet - included:

  • Is there going to be sufficient money, and will the volume be maintained?
  • How is postgraduate training going to be addressed? This isn’t likely to happen very rapidly as it will cost hundreds of millions to fix.
  • How will Charities fund the indirect element in the long-term? What will be the longevity of the “Charity Partnership Fund” which is designed to meet the shortfall?
  • How will cost differences between institutions (estates costs in particular, including for example, costly high-maintenance animal facilities) be addressed? We were reassured that these costs would be met, since there were obvious historical differences between institutions. However (the sting in the tail), there would be pressures for efficiency and harmonization! It was commented that there were already “benchmarking clubs” between some institutions to enable costing comparisons to be made. It was clear that the data which will be accumulated by the Research Councils will not be made available to HEIs.
  • EU funding? The government is reportedly exerting increasing pressure for there to be FEC applied to all its grants.
  • Teaching? We are told that FEC is on the way for this sphere of our activities also. This is logical considering that the TRAC exercise identified the extent to which teaching cross-supports research. There was some concern that HEfCE might interpret this as there being an over-funding of teaching. However, the evidence suggests that this is not the case since teaching/ research activities are so intimately interwoven.

So we came to the end of another year’s very informative and sociable “Hot Topics” event. Many thanks go to the excellent speakers and, of course, to Arthur Weston, our local host, and the staff of Chancellors. No doubt we’ll be back there again for more hot stuff in Spring 2006.

Peter Roberts