Australia must not lose a generation of medical researchers

The Research Australia report has exposed the fault lines in health research funding, says Ross Coppel 

August 10, 2020
a heartbeat monitor
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According to the recently released Research Australia report, more than three-quarters of Australia’s early career researchers (ECRs) in medical science are employed on temporary contracts or as casuals.

Those young postdoctoral researchers in their 20s and 30s are essentially serving apprenticeships, expected to produce publishable research while relying on short-duration contracts of usually one to two years.

The expected reduction in international student enrolments during the pandemic has been predicted by the Rapid Research Information Forum to result in the loss of 7,000 research-related jobs at Australian universities. The forum, chaired by Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, also predicted in its May report that the job losses will be “disproportionately felt by junior researchers, including recent graduates, early career and mid-career researchers, and women”.

This is, of course, not good news for any of those groups. But it is also bad news for the nation if we end up with a lost generation of medical researchers because it will undermine our ability to confront heart disease, cancer and even the next pandemic. Without medical ECRs, we lose the next generation of scientists, who are the backbone of one of the strongest medical research communities in the world and the providers of the intellectual property that fuels future job growth.

Australia is able, as usual, to punch above its weight in the development of candidate vaccines and treatments for Covid-19 because the senior scientists running the show were able to refine their skills as ECRs.

Moreover, those in clinical research, if they have a medical background, are likely to have put their research on hold to go back to providing healthcare at the coal face.With an uncertain career in academia, these ECRs are likely to seek employment in industry (depending on the impact of the pandemic on industry’s capacity to grow), in teaching, remain in the clinic or choose another career entirely.

This potential loss – combined with the likelihood that 9,000 international research students won’t return to Australia to complete their research programmes – will mean that our labs will be without the workforce that is the bedrock of our research excellence as well as the hands-on supervisors of PhD students, who in turn become ECRs, and so the impact on our research capability escalates.

The Research Australia report, which interviewed 1,100 medical researchers to determine the impact of Covid-19, has also exposed the fault lines in the way that Australia funds health and medical research more generally. Australian funding agencies fail to cover anything like the full costs of research. Industry investment in R&D is below the OECD average on many measures. And ad hoc changes to funding schemes – even welcome ones such as the Medical Research Future Fund – result in a feast or famine environment that does not support the innovation ecosystem but, rather, short-term winners and losers. Career development pathways that should function over decades suffer as a result.

Unsurprisingly, then, nearly two-thirds (62.5 per cent) of those surveyed support a longer-term restructure of Australia’s research and innovation funding framework, while only 5.4 per cent feel such a move isn’t needed.

Moreover, almost 70 per cent of respondents assume that their research will be affected by the pandemic beyond this year and – alarmingly – almost half (47 per cent) anticipate that they won’t be able to finish their current, non-Covid projects. In Early June, for instance, the prestigious journal Nature Reviews Cancer warned that the loss of ECRs across the globe “has the potential to result in irreparable harm to a generation of talented scientists and derail the impressive progress we have seen in cancer research in the past decade”.

To make matters worse, ECRs not involved in Covid research have been shut out of their labs since the start of the crisis, unable to generate the data for the publications that are the currency needed to obtain their next grant or job. And when they do eventually return, they will find that support from their institution has been weakened by the virus. Even our most successful scientists would have, as ECRs, spent some time being supported by university funding while they built the track record and skills necessary to become independent researchers.

These problems are compounded by the fact that Australian universities have been denied access to support mechanisms offered to other industries, while the donations that support medical research institutes – the incubators of some of our leading scientists – have dried up.

So how exactly will we support our crucial ECRs? That is a difficult question, but if we don’t find an answer, the future of medical research in Australia and elsewhere will face a grim prognosis.

Ross Coppel is deputy dean and director of research in the faculty of medicine, nursing and health sciences at Monash University.

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