Dame Sally Davies speaking at the Huxley Summit in 2016

Sally Davies, the founder of the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), ensured that the NIHR’s funding to universities is tied to gender-equality targets.Credit: Frantzesco Kangaris/PA

Letters from research funders to university leaders rarely raise eyebrows. But a letter sent this month by the heads of the United Kingdom’s three largest medical-research funders did just that.

It says that some types of funding could be withheld unless universities provide better support for early- and mid-career staff — particularly women and trainees. And it warns that institutions could be prevented from bidding for funded posts unless they change their ways. The letter is signed by the heads of the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Wellcome.

What has sparked funder frustration is the fact that universities promise to look after new researchers when applying for grants — making pledges including the provision of quality mentoring, or a path to promotion. But in some cases these commitments are ignored once grant money is banked — sometimes in violation of contracts. No institutions are named in the letter, which has been seen by Nature, but it points to “some very large and well-established Universities and Medical Schools”.

One of the signatories — the NIHR — was an early adopter of tough measures in support of advancing women’s careers. In 2011, it made grants conditional on medical schools achieving a gold or silver in the Athena SWAN Charter, a scheme designed to improve women’s career prospects that has also raised awareness of the structural barriers to gender equality in universities. However, there have been unintended consequences: it is mostly women who have had to take on the additional burden of work needed to meet the scheme’s requirements.

Early- and mid-career researchers face enormous pressures, including job insecurity, fierce competition for academic positions, and administrative burdens. That is in addition to a treadmill of grant applications and publication submissions.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the experience of Athena SWAN — including recognizing those universities and university departments where early-career researchers are supported, and where positive action is being taken to advance equality and diversity.

But when it comes to the needs of early- and mid-career clinical researchers, the NIHR and the other medical-research funders are right to challenge universities that are not doing enough. A strongly worded letter warning universities that they could be sanctioned unless they change is a necessary step.