Dementia research and the people who commit their careers to it, are the key to unlocking a door to a future which is free of this devastating disease. With an estimated 55 million people now living with dementia worldwide, the pressure is on! But is the academic and healthcare system researchers work within, making their jobs easier, or harder?
If you’re reading this blog, and you’re a researcher, I’m probably not going to say anything you don’t already know. However, people outside the research bubble may be unaware of the challenges. Let’s start by highlighting some of the great benefits that come from a career in dementia research.
Researchers are passionate about their work and proud to be part of the research community – they see it as a vocation, not just a job and are often motivated through first-hand experience. Research provides an opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives, and the world! There is often a lot of flexibility, a chance to work overseas, and when you climb the ladder the pay is okay (when compared to some other jobs). Finally, the brain is one of the last parts of the human body we still know so little about, providing a fantastic opportunity for those who choose to work in dementia to create their own path, and to make unique discoveries.
Then, there are the downsides… career uncertainty, short-term contracts, more researchers than there are jobs and funding. They work in a complex system that focuses on quantity of outputs, and impact, rather than on real quality. All of this creates a highly pressurised environment where researchers need to find time to publish papers, teach students, keep up to date with the field, and much more, whilst also working in a contract that may only be 12 months long. Multiple papers now highlight that whilst research culture does vary across the world, these are common themes and they have a big effect on researchers overall health, additionally researchers from underrepresented groups experience the most challenges.
Social media has brought researchers together, particularly those who would be considered early career researchers (ECRs i.e., those who aren’t yet tenured, Professors or Consultants). They’re comparing notes, being open about how they feel, the problems they face, and they want action! They want improvements, better contracts, and for the places they work to support them… and if they get the change they want, it will be their research, and people affected by dementia who will benefit.
Research institutions, funders, and policy makers are starting to pay attention and to consider how they can better support researchers to stay in the field. How they can enable ECRs to be happy, healthy, and capable of doing the job we all need them to do. But more could be done, and it could be done faster.
So yes, researchers face many challenges, but I feel certain that change is coming, and it couldn’t come at a better time. We need to attract more people to the field and ensure we retain the ones we have, to provide a brighter future.
For my part in this, I lead Dementia Researcher, one of the UK support offerings from the National Institute of Health Research, supported by Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society. Through Dementia Researcher we provide a range of support to help the community, and to bring them together to succeed. I also have the pleasure of Chairing the Alzheimer's Association International Society to Advance Alzheimer's Research and Treatment (ISTAART) Professional Interest Areas to Elevate Early Career Researchers (PEERs), which is also aiming to better understanding the challenges faced by ECRs, and to provide support to drive improvements.
ISTAART/PEERs and University College London (UCL) are currently conducting a worldwide survey of dementia ECRs, to ask what support they need, and to understand the challenges they face, in their part of the world. The results will be published and used to inform guidance. Researchers can take-part here.
Something in today’s news caught my attention, and I’m drawn to this story to round-off this blog. Today, Space X are launching their Inspiration 4 mission into space. By the time you read this, they’ll be back, but for those who aren’t up to speed: The mission aims to complete the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens aboard. Four crew members: Hayley Arceneaux, Christopher Sembroski, Sian Proctor, and Jared Isaacman will spend three days in orbit aboard Crew Dragon Resilience. The four individuals have been selected to represent the four values promoted by the mission: leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity.
I can relate to those values, so I will end by using them to express my own feelings and beliefs on this topic.
I believe that research institutions, funders and policy makers have an opportunity to show leadership and provide a better working environment and culture for researchers. This will ensure we bring more people into dementia research, keep the ones we have, and it is people living with dementia and the next generations will benefit from their efforts.
I hope that young people will be inspired to bring their talents, new ideas, enthusiasm, and passion to the field of dementia research. In all areas of discovery, from exploring how the arts can help people, to understanding what is going on in the brain, to how diet and lifestyle can reduce the risks of developing the disease, through to understanding how one can improve care and support.
I ask the public, as well as carers and people living with the disease to show generosity with their time. To help researchers by coming forward and volunteering to participate in research studies. They can also motivate researchers by sharing their experiences, and ensure that they continue to focus not just on the areas that interest them, but on things that are important to people who live with the disease and their families.
Finally, we have prosperity. I am not thinking of this in an economic sense, but instead the rich and full lives that we can all live, and I hope that one day, this will be a life that is free of the shadow of dementia.
Adam Smith is a dementia researcher and chair of ISTAART PIA to Elevate Early Career Researchers, University College London