Pandemic ‘scuttling medical research’ in Australia

Short-term financial squeeze could litter sector with aborted projects and careers, report warns

August 10, 2020
Medical student in research lab
Source: iStock

Fewer than one in 25 Australian medical researchers have received additional government funding since the pandemic began, even though more than one in four are working on coronavirus-related research, a report suggests.

A survey of 1,200 researchers has found some bright signs for medical researchers battling the Covid-19 crisis, with organisations collaborating more and “minor improvements” to the procedures and responsiveness of funding bodies.

But such progress is overshadowed by massive disruption to research projects and the people undertaking them. Eighty per cent of the respondents said their work had been adversely affected by the pandemic, often because they were unable to research remotely or interact with clinical trial participants.

Many said their projects had been suspended or halted by travel restrictions or the shuttering of key research settings such as hospitals and aged care centres. About one-quarter said teaching responsibilities had swamped their research, with a similar proportion complaining of interruptions to supplies and equipment.

Financial impediments have also proven disruptive, with 13 per cent of respondents complaining that consumables had passed their use-by dates – necessitating costly replacements – while 6 per cent said funding had been withdrawn by commercial partners.

Report authors Research Australia, a representative body for health and medical research professionals, estimated that the crisis would strip an average of at least A$62,000 (£34,000) from each respondent’s research funding kitty.

“The pandemic has caused delays and disruptions to research projects that mean they can’t be completed with the original grant funding provided,” said Research Australia managing director Nadia Levin. “This is having real impacts on job security and creating the potential for wasted research, with flow-on effects on Australians’ health and wealth.”

Medical researchers are regarded with a degree of envy by their counterparts in other fields, partly because of their exclusive access to the A$20 billion Medical Research Future Fund. But its allocations generally go to new projects rather than existing ones, the report says.

Meanwhile, few researchers benefit from highly publicised handouts like the A$13 million in state and federal grants for vaccine development at the University of Queensland. Just 9 per cent of respondents reported receiving additional support from their employers – usually universities – to help make up the shortfall.

Less than 4 per cent had received extra government funding, and fewer still reported stopgap grants from other sources. Yet of those able to offer an estimate, 58 per cent expected the crisis to obliterate at least 20 per cent of their research budgets.

The report warns that the ranks of research professionals will be decimated – with PhD students and early career researchers particularly affected – without a “longer-term restructure of Australia’s research and innovation funding framework”.

Thirty-five per cent of respondents indicated that they were not currently applying for new grants because of postponements or cancellations of funding rounds. Yet 55 per cent were employed under short-term contracts, suggesting that their continued employment hinged on obtaining fresh revenue.

Recent doctoral graduates are at particular risk, with more than three-quarters of them in insecure employment, the survey found. “Early career researchers are the future of the health and medical research sector,” the report says. “Disruptions to their careers, leading to fewer researchers rising through the ranks, ensures the short-term financial difficulties created by Covid-19 will have long-term ramifications.”

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