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Professor: Nicky J Welton, PhD, MSc, BSc


Nicky J Welton, PhD, MSc, BSc

Current job:

Professor of Statistical and Health Economic Modelling, University of Bristol

Length of career:

24 years

Key quote:

Change is challenging, but brings lots of new opportunities for collaborations – make the most of it.

Career in brief:

I started my career studying Econometrics at the University of Sheffield, but found that I enjoyed the mathematics and statistics elements, and so I switched courses to obtain a BSc in Mathematics in 1993. I decided to continue doing what I enjoyed, and obtained an MSc in Statistics from University College London.

During my BSc, I completed two summer internships at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology which sparked my interest in biology and lead to my choice of PhD in behavioural biology.

Following my PhD, I worked for a short time as a statistician at the UK Transplant Support Service Authority, before moving back to academia, as a Lecturer in Statistics at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. Here, I taught statistics to students from a wide range of backgrounds, which helped me develop the ability to explain complex ideas in a non-technical way to non-statisticians. However, I felt that I needed more guidance to help me identify my own research area, and develop my own program of research.

In 2002, I made the difficult decision to leave a secure permanent job at UWE for a short-term contract with the Multi-parameter Evidence Synthesis (MPES) research group, funded by the MRC Health Services Research Collaboration at the University of Bristol. This proved to be exactly the right move for me, working on projects that made good use of my skills (the combination of statistics, mathematics, and economics). Discovering Bayesian statistical modelling provided me with the flexibility to fit the imaginative models needed for healthcare decision making - to fully reflect the available evidence.

In 2009 I obtained an MRC Methodology Research Fellowship which was an incredibly productive time for me, and enabled me to begin to build my own research team of statisticians and health economists. I now lead the MPES group, I am a NICE Technology Appraisals committee member and deputy director of the NICE Clinical Guidelines Technical Support Unit.

What difference has MRC-NIHR Methodology Research Programme Funding made to your career:

The MRC-NIHR Methodology Research Programme has been pivotal to my career and has enabled me to focus my research on developing methods. My MRC Methodology Research Fellowship developed my skills in economic modelling and has been essential for my research in methods for value of information calculations – methods to help identify areas where research investment will have the most impact on healthcare decision-making for patients.

The work I developed within my Fellowship led to a further programme of work to improve the use of existing evidence within the design of new clinical trials with the MRC ConDuCT-I and ConDuCT-II Hubs for Trials Methodology Research at Bristol. In turn, this opened collaborative opportunities with UCL, Sheffield, and Cambridge for a five-day course in Bayesian Methods for Health Economics, with two days devoted to value of information – ensuring the impact and adoption of methods developed within my research.

Further MRC-NIHR Methodology Research Programme project grants have also enabled collaboration with industry partners. As a NICE Technology Appraisals Committee member, I see the importance of robust methods for industry submissions to NICE. By working in collaboration with industry, we can develop methods in (historical) datasets that can improve future health technology assessments and future policy decisions.

As a methodologist, I am often involved in applied projects which raise methodological challenges where there is not always the time or resource to deal with those challenges. Having a funding stream devoted to Methodology Research provides an opportunity to develop solutions to real-world, rate-limiting challenges for health research.

I spend my days:

Doing a variety of activities: writing, reading and commenting on reports and papers; attending project meetings (on a wide variety of applied and methodological topics); supervising staff and students; teaching short courses; reviewing papers and grant proposals; writing grant proposals; thinking; coding; and sometimes algebra. 

Career highlights:

Being made Professor is something I’m very proud of, as it is a recognition of not just my work, but the work of the whole Multi-Parameter Evidence Synthesis team in Bristol.

Joining a NICE Technology Appraisals Committee is also a highlight of my career, as I feel my expertise has a real contribution to making decisions on the treatments recommended in the NHS and also because I can see the most important methodology challenges in healthcare decision-making first-hand. 

Getting an MRC Methodology Research fellowship was also a highlight of course, as this set me on the path to independent research.

Biggest challenges:

The biggest challenge for me is managing my workload. All projects sound interesting, so it’s hard to say 'no', and I tend to become over-committed. I remind myself that it is important to protect time for the projects which make the best use of my skills and are most likely to make a difference.

Another major challenge in academia is handling job insecurity. In my experience, although methodologists are on 'soft-money', there is always a need for good methodologists and positions do keep coming up. It is much more productive to concentrate on developing research ideas and engaging with stakeholders, than on worrying about your funding running out. Easier said than done though!

What I’d do differently/I wish I’d known/I still wonder if:

I wish I’d understood better how universities 'work' in terms of career progression and funding. I always try to explain it to the staff I am responsible for (in as much as I understand it!), as I would have appreciated someone doing that earlier on in my career.

Skills I consider most valuable:

Ability to: understand how observed data relate to model parameters; read and write clear algebra and code; be able to explain complex ideas in a straightforward way; be creative in developing statistical and economic models; perseverance.

I am inspired by:

Professor Tony Ades who founded the Multi-Parameter Evidence Synthesis research group in Bristol. Tony is totally focused on addressing key questions and has amazing insight into data generating processes and how they relate to model parameters. His instinct with statistical models is nearly always correct! He always finds time for staff and gives thorough and insightful feedback. Working with him has taught me to always push myself to excel, to learn the importance of engaging with stakeholder through training courses, providing technical support, and membership of committees, and to think creatively to find solutions that ensure healthcare policy is based on robust evidence and models.

Words of wisdom:

Engaging with public organisations and industry helps to keep your research relevant and impactful. Get on committees and run training courses.

Don’t be downhearted by critical feedback – think of it as a conversation, and enjoy the opportunity for dialogue/debate.

Don’t be afraid to approach senior colleagues for advice and input – people really are willing to help and get involved.

Next steps:

I want to continue pursuing research projects that will have a big impact on policy-makers and patients. It is a time of change in the way that evidence is used to inform decision making, with new treatments being licensed with less good evidence. This creates challenges, but also opportunities to develop new methods to help inform robust decisions.

Further information:

Multi-parameter Evidence Synthesis research group

Health Economics Bristol

Nicky's research profile

Correct as of: February 2018