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Are Australian health and medical researchers destined to disappear?

By: Jedha Dening, MedicalSearch writer
15 June, 2016

During 2015, I'd had personal conversations with Professor Andrew Sinclair, a professor of nutritional science and an award-winning researcher with over 300 publications spanning more than 40 years.

We spoke about the fact that Professor Sinclair had chosen to work in China in recent years because there is more funding, which allows more power behind the studies being done and therefore, greater strength to the overall outcomes and conclusions derived.

While this story is not a personal one, it highlights a question that is high and centre in Australia right now: Are Australian health and medical researchers destined to disappear?

Funding Cuts a Big Deal

As reported by Robert Virtue, on ABC News, ten years ago, there were approximately 25% of submitted grants funded for medical research. More recently this figure has dropped to just fewer than 14%. The Australian Society for Medical Research has suggested the lack of funding is due to lack of federal allocated resources toward medical research. Another concern is that while the funding may take into account the cost of research, it often doesn't take into account the cost of paying the highly qualified people needed to do the job.

The truth that's facing researchers is despite the funding available, if they don't get awarded funding, they have no job. Being a researcher in Australia doesn't provide a great deal of job security. And further to this, there are very attractive international offers that are available for researchers to consider.

Though making a decision to work overseas is not an easy one when family members, friends and social networks are positioned locally. Given the situation, is Australia likely to see many of it's best, opt for international positions in the coming years?

Governments are Clawing to Make Gains

According to Robert Virtue, on ABC News, the government is aiming to implement incentives such as the Medical Research Future Fund, which promises $20 billion in the 2016-2017 federal budget. The Medical Research Future Fund is designed to deliver approximately $800 million over the next 4 years with the goal, once the fund matures, to reach $1 billion worth of research funding each year thereafter.

However, this is a medium to long-term plan, which doesn't necessarily account for the short-term losses. And the question arises, is it all a little too late? Will Australia have lost a large portion of its valuable intellectual property to international research facilities?

Research Job Cuts

Organisations such as the CSIRO, one of Australia's well-known scientific research facilities, recently cut 32 jobs in the climate research lab due to restructuring, with the total tally of job cuts being close to 1300 over the past 2 years, reports Farrah Tomazin, for The Age, Victoria.

The budget cuts for CSIRO of $115 million will result in approximately 275 job cuts, reports The Conversation. Though the large majority of these cuts are occurring in the climate science research facilities, the fact that it is occurring at all doesn't provide a great deal of job security confidence to researchers in other fields.

The question arises, with cuts such as this, will Australia lose the capacity to communicate and collaborate with scientists in international facilities?

Restructuring Funding Organisations

The National Health and Medical Research Council, largely responsible for rewarding funding for clinical trials and medical research, is currently undergoing a structural review of its grants program. They report that with the rising cost of research and the amount of applications there is a high burden on both reviewers and applicants alike, which also raises concern over the ability to reward funding for mid-level researchers and for research into new innovative areas.

Bridging the Gaps

Research Australia is endeavouring to bridge the gap between health research, health practice and the health economy. When Australia has a framework that does bridge this gap, funding for medical and health research would likely be considered even more valuable.

Conventions and conferences held for both local and international researchers, scientists and even enterprise and investors, which have also been in decline, are key to shared knowledge, collaboration, and achieving medical breakthroughs. Conventions and conferences are also key in maximising return on research investment, suggests BTN News.

The question arises; will Australia continue to decline and struggle with making key investments toward the future?

Fostering Innovation

There's also been a lot of talk about innovation. Australia does have incredible researchers and innovators. For example, "Vaccines, such as Gardasil, and devices such as the ResMed sleep mask and the bionic ear have been major dollar earners," reports Peter C. Doherty on The Conversation.

Innovation requires support, environments and a culture that encourages bold ideas and creativity outside the square, that's often where great discoveries are made. Yet, the question remains, is Australia really fostering innovative environments and culture?

So, are Australian health and medical researchers destined to disappear?

There are certainly many questions left hanging in the air. And in the end, only time will tell.

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Robin | Tuesday, June 21, 2016, 1:56 AM
It is a little known fact that Australian researchers Prof. Sonya Marshall-Gradnisik and Prof. Don Staines are at the forefront of world research into the disease myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). They run the National Centre for Neuroimmune and Emerging Diseases, based at Griffith University. In a world first these researchers have preliminary patents on biomarkers and a diagnostic screening test. Most of their work has been funded privately, as despite the economic impact of this devastating and poorly researched disease being estimated at 4 billion a year, to date government funding has not been forthcoming. The USA Institute of Medicine reported on the disease, the devastating impact it has on peoples lives, the high illness burden and lack of research. Australia is poised, to bring a diagnostic screening test to market, with potentially an enormous capacity to generate funds both directly and as a spin off from early detection and prevention of wasted testing. How do we get the government to look?? Currently the GP guidelines are based on a 2007 guideline from the UK which has been demonstrated to NOT be effective by an 8 million trial in the UK. Our researchers are leading but for how long? The USA National Institute of Health has started taking this disease seriously. Wouldn't it be a shame to lose the edge- because our researchers weren't supported.