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Building capacity in epilepsy research after COVID-19

Maxine Smeaton 2

Maxine Smeaton

ERUK Chief Executive

Date Published: July 15, 2020

Author: Maxine Smeaton

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us rethink how we can maximise the impact our research has for people with epilepsy. In this blog, our Chief Executive Maxine Smeaton explains how we plan to build capacity by attracting and retaining the best epilepsy researchers at this pivotal moment.

Every week 600 people in the UK are diagnosed with epilepsy. At Epilepsy Research UK, we passionately believe that research holds the key to helping people live a life free from epilepsy. We’re proud as a charity to be investing over £1 million each year into research to understand the causes and improve diagnosis and management of the condition.

To bring the greatest transformation in care for people with epilepsy, we know that we must go beyond funding individual research projects. The field of epilepsy research has been chronically starved of funding for years, and for many researchers, at the beginning of their career, this makes it a challenge to get into the field and maintain funding.

Building a strong research community is one of our key strategic priorities as a charity, and an area we feel we can have a significant impact. Through initiatives like our fellowship awards and the Doctoral Training Centre Grant scheme we announced recently, we’re making great progress in keeping the brightest minds focussed on epilepsy.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted this progress and brought much of the research we fund to a standstill. Significant innovations which were on the cusp of being translated into patient benefit have now been delayed. Public life might seem like it is slowly returning to normal, but scientists are only now starting to get their work back up and running, and clinical researchers may still be redeployed to the COVID-19 front-line.

Without acting now, the momentum we’ve built might be permanently lost, meaning that scientific discoveries will take longer to reach people with epilepsy.

The pandemic has made us re-evaluate how we can best support epilepsy research right now. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we funded a record amount of research in our last grant round, and we’re in the fortunate position to be able to commit the same level of research funding this year. But we now have a unique opportunity to change how we fund research and lay a strong foundation for the future.

Therefore, for this year’s upcoming grant round, we will be diverting all our funding to our ERUK Emerging Leader Fellowship Awards and a joint Fellowship Award in partnership with Young Epilepsy. These fellowships are specifically designed to help early-career scientists develop into research leaders. This does mean that we will not be funding any new project or pilot studies in the upcoming grant round, which we know may come as a disappointment to some researchers. But we feel that investing in fellowship awards is the best thing we can do right now to build capacity for the future.

We want to help the epilepsy research community rebuild after COVID-19 – not only help it get back on its feet, but make it stronger than before.

We believe that securing the most promising scientists into this community right now will have the greatest impact for people living with epilepsy in the future.

Are you a scientist aiming to develop your career in epilepsy research? Keep an eye out for upcoming announcements on how you can apply for our Emerging Leaders Fellowship Awards on our research grants awards page.

-Maxine Smeaton