The European Society of Anaesthesiology research support programme at 15 years: a lot done, still more to do

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In 2001, the European Society of Anaesthesiology (ESA) took a strategic decision to support the relatively modest and geographically patchy research initiatives that were active in Europe at that time. The fundamental instrument deployed was the award of research grants ranging from modest support and young investigator start-up grants (€15K) to full project grants (€60K). This was combined with other strategies that included offering educational opportunities in research know-how, such as masterclasses on research design and methodology, and the establishment of the ESA Clinical Trial Network,1–3 both starting in 2011.
From the outset, the research grants were awarded only to ESA members following nondisclosed (nonopen) peer review; the peer reviewers were not identified to the investigators during feedback, and there were elaborate precautions to manage conflicts of interest. Although most of the funding remains sourced from the ESA itself, a number of prizes and grants backed by unrestricted support from industry are offered for research proposals within a defined topic (Table 1).
In its first 15 years a total of 80 grants [40 support grants (€15K) and 40 substantive project grants (€40 to 60K)] have been awarded by the ESA to investigators from 13 nationalities. This has spawned more than 84 PubMed citable publications, including publications in prestigious journals like JAMA, Lancet, Journal of Clinical Investigation, British Journal of Anaesthesia, Anesthesiology and the European Journal of Anaesthesiology (Fig. 1).4,5
Although in the early years of the programme (2001 to 2008), up to 20% grants failed to result in any publication, in recent years this figure has fallen to less than 10%. This reflects improved training and awareness of good clinical practice and research methodology, something that can at least in part, be attributable to the existence of these programmes. Although the number of research publications attributable to smaller grants seems comparable to that achieved from larger grants in the period up to 2008, this is unlikely to be sustainable today. This is because the funding of clinical scientists’ time away from clinical service and detailed budgeting of consumable items are more diligently accounted for. Also, recipients of small ESA grants may have been helped with early publications after receiving the bulk of their funding from other sources.
Although it is encouraging to observe improving quality and quantity of publications emanating from ESA-funded grant programmes, perhaps the society's greatest research achievement to date is the establishment of the Clinical Trial Network.1–3 This programme seeks proposals for large-scale observational studies or moderately complex interventional trials, puts them through a peer review process and then provides administrative support to help with enlisting participating centres, data collection and analytic infrastructure. Table 2 lists the studies undertaken by the Clinical Trial Network to date and their current publication status.
Within the Clinical Trial Network there are more than 450 active departments, able to express their interest mainly through online communication and personal contact. This process has not only imbued those participating with an enthusiastic sense of contributing to important research questions but it may also have inspired colleagues within anaesthesia and other specialties to consider the research potential of their routine working environments. Publication outputs have also been satisfactory (Table 2).
Within the framework, the ESA research committee encourages active researchers to work together in ESA research groups. One example is a group that is very active with initiatives in the field of protective ventilation (PROtective VEntilation NETwork). Another is the PAIN-OUT (Improvment in posterative PAIN OUTcome) group, where pain specialists are working together.
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