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The Black Hole

Teaching and research roles – moving beyond the clinician scientist

How about offering permanent lecturers the ability to undertake research in a leading lab in the same department?


Just about anyone who works within biomedical research has interacted with swathes of clinician scientists. They come in all shapes and sizes, from those who have just briefly touched down in a lab through to those who wouldn’t even trust themselves in a room with a patient anymore. At some point (I don’t pretend to know the exact mechanics or motivations), the clinician scientist became a critical cog in the research and translational space, and it now would be completely bizarre to imagine a hospital-based research centre without them. How did this value get created? How does the system continue to justify the investment? And, the subject of this post: why are clinicians seemingly the only non-scientist role valued by scientists?

I suppose the justification is straightforward: if we want to make research advances that impact patient well-being, the scientists undertaking the research may stand to learn something from those seeing and treating those patients. And, fair enough, as a non-clinician, I can attest to gaining enormous benefit and insight through my interactions with clinician scientists at all stages. But this got me thinking about what other professions might also make a case to benefit the research community. The first profession that sprang to mind was university lecturers.

For those not involved in biomedical research, this might seem a bit of an odd suggestion since professors must already be so well-integrated into teaching that it would be redundant. But this is simply not the case now that biomedical research has shifted away from university-based research labs. The result is that a significant number of our world-leading researchers have little to no formal teaching role (often consequent to physical separation) and even less interaction with the world-leading educators at the same institution. The logic of such a move was presumably to free up researcher time and to enhance interactions with the clinical world, but was there a hidden cost?

University lectures require the instructor not only to understand the field but also to communicate the development of a field – to focus on the critical experiments and hypotheses that drove the paradigm shifts. To do so requires a deep understanding of the related fields, the novel technologies that drive change, and the interdisciplinary interactions – in other words, a much wider lens from which to view one’s own research question. Moreover, instructors are consistently interacting with the next generation of ideas and perspectives. Surely these aspects are valuable to the modern-day specialist researcher?

As readers know, our blog focuses on trying to pitch solutions and it is probably obvious that I am not going to suggest that we make all of our researchers teach more or relocate them back to university campuses. Rather, I think we can gain substantially by supporting and integrating excellent instructors into more biomedical research labs, and there are a number of ways to do so.

To pitch this, I’d like to first return to the original inspiration for the post: the clinician scientist. As it stands, there are three main versions of clinician scientist:

  • Clinicians who “learn science” and predominantly return full-time to the clinic; they often create added value by running clinical trials, interacting with research labs to provide samples, etc.
  • Clinicians who keep both feet firmly in both arenas – those who run a lab and see patients.
  • Clinicians who abandon the clinic altogether and focus on science.

How does the second of these careers survive? How can one person do both jobs successfully at full capacity? They can’t … but the system supports them, because we value the link and I think it’s high time we do the same for university lecturers.

During MD/PhD programs and postdoctoral training, clinicians with active duties are often given access to a number of soft resources – people’s time, mostly. This can come in the shape of a research assistant (more formal) or getting help from people based in the host laboratory. Sometimes, full-time clinicians can have long and productive relationships with specific labs all while their salaries are covered by the hospital – they still get involved in the research because it’s an area of interest to them (and their patients). So, why not have this same level of support for gifted teachers and broader thinkers?

An example of how this might take shape:

Course instructor/postdoctoral researcher. This is similar to the position that would traditionally have been at a “mom and pop” lab of four to five students that really ramps up in summer when the boss isn’t teaching. But, instead of the lecturer being a lab head, they are simply integrated into a host lab within the department (this would save money on lab tools and space as well!).  Instead of a single postdoctoral fellow, a research grant could employ a postdoctoral-level scientist and a full-time research assistant with the understanding that during term time, the senior postdoc would not be quite as accessible. The salary could be paid two-thirds by department that gets the teaching, one-third by the host lab/department. A total win-win.

The key here would be making it a legitimate career – like clinicians! If departments could offer these positions as permanent lecturing jobs with the ability to undertake research in a leading lab in the same department, I’d bet there would be a huge appetite for such positions. Additionally, it just might start chipping away at the perennial problem we discuss on this site of too many postdocs with no idea what to do with their lives if that elusive professor job just doesn’t pan out.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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