NHS75 - Why research matters

As the NHS turns 75, Dr Nick McNally, Managing Director of Research at UCLH and UCL, reflects on his career in NHS research, how he first got interested in research, and his advice for anyone thinking about a career in research or research support.

I trace back my interest in health and medicine to my undergraduate days in Nottingham when I came across ‘medical geography’ which explored the concepts of space and place in health and healthcare. It piqued my interest to such an extent that I did a PhD – an interdisciplinary project between the social and medical sciences.

What drew me to research in those early days? It has to be the prospect of being able to generate new knowledge and new insights that just might go on to benefit people – to impact on people’s lives in a positive way.

As with most people who choose to do PhDs, I reached that point early on in my research when the reality dawned that my contribution to the knowledge bank was going to be small and incremental at best. But then again, how many people have actually shifted paradigms with their PhDs? - unless you’re Marie Curie or Albert Einstein of course.

But I really enjoyed the thrill of seeking new insights through my work, and I was drawn to the rigour and structure that research demands of you - the need to know your work inside and out and be prepared to defend it. And the opportunity to be a team player – supporting other members of our multidisciplinary research group and learning from them

No accident then that my career to date has been based in medical research - if not the actual doing of the research, the coordinating, managing and leading research support teams. Strategic partnering with clinical academic colleagues too - developing strategy for research infrastructure, and driving funding bids to gear up the clinical research activities across major NHS: university and other partnerships.

What do I love about the work I do? The substrate for my day-to-day work is world leading science. Underpinning everything I do is this constant flow of potentially life changing research. I feel very privileged to work in a major partnership like UCL/UCLH which is producing work that benefits people worldwide. A working environment where I’m interacting with some of the UK’s, and the world’s, top medical science teams who increasingly include members of the public as advisors and disseminators of our work. It’s a feeling of being involved at the cutting edge, the challenge of trying to get my head around just enough of the scientific detail, and of having the opportunity to play a part, however small, in helping to make that research happen.

There is always a sense that we could be doing more, or doing things better, but I love that challenge and in particular talking with frontline NHS and university colleagues about what really matters to them in terms of the research we are planning. Working with colleagues in R&D and leading teams of dedicated staff who are so focused on delivering and supporting our ground-breaking research is incredibly fulfilling. That includes operations teams, statisticians, communications experts, informaticians, public involvement specialists and research governance, finance and contracts teams. Behind every professor and their research team is a big, dedicated, multiprofessional support unit.  Those moments where you see the research that your teams have helped support get published and potentially hit the headlines are very special.

My advice to anyone thinking about a career in research or research support? Give it a go. There are multiple ways of getting into research and the UK health research system needs you. There is never a dull moment in my job and you have a genuine opportunity to make a positive difference for people. 

So, reflecting back to my undergraduate days in medical geography, I would say that I feel fortunate to have found my space and place in clinical research in the NHS. The last 20+ years really have given me the opportunity to play a part in progressing how we diagnose and treat major diseases such as dementia, cancer, heart disease, and more recently Covid-19 . Research is such an important part of what the NHS does. So on its 75th Birthday I want to salute NHS research, say thank-you for the opportunity a research career has given me and acknowledge the massive impact it has had on the lives of people not just in the UK but across the globe.

This blog first appeared on the website of UK Research and Development.