Australia facing research crisis


Australia risks losing its envied standing as a leader in health and medical research without urgent and significant investment into the National Health and Medical Research Council, says the new president of the Australian Society for Medical Research.

Dr Daniel Johnstone said our brightest scientists would be lured overseas to better funded centres and innovative research would grind to a halt in Australia unless the government stepped in.

He said the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) had known for some time that morale amongst researchers was very low and that grant success rates had plummeted, but recently he had heard anecdotal reports of researchers shutting their laboratories because they could no longer afford to operate them.

Citing a society survey in November 2015, he said “one quarter of people who answered weren’t sure if they’d be employed in 2016”.

“From looking at the data now people are saying the situation is the worst they have ever seen it in their careers,” Dr Johnstone said.

“In terms of moral, grant success rates are less than one in seven – that’s a pretty bleak outlook in terms of morale, people are very concerned they won’t get funding to do their research. This could mean the loss of really good intellectual capital.”

Each dollar invested returns $3.20

The AMSR commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to compile a report to quantify the value of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded health and medical research workforce in Australia. This report was released at Parliament House in Canberra in November.

The report, Australia’s health and medical research workforce: Expert people providing exceptional returns, highlighted the associated impact on Australia’s ability to respond to future health challenges through medical research associated with declines in the workforce, and conversely, the increased returns if funding for health and medical research increased.

The report highlighted the major changes currently occurring in the NHMRC-funded workforce and provided evidence of the exceptional health and economic returns of investing in Australia’s productive and highly talented research workforce.

The report also suggested that Australia still has capacity to provide greater output and benefits as a result of investing further in the NHMRC and the workforce it supports.

“Over a number of years, ASMR has observed, with deep concern, the erosion of Australia’s health and medical research workforce,” the report’s authors wrote.

“A large proportion of this workforce is supported by the NHMRC, the peak funding body for Australian health and medical research.

“However, five years of static investment into the NHMRC has resulted in falling grant funding rates and a decline in the NHMRC-funded workforce; this trend endangers the capacity of NHMRC investment to continue producing exceptional health and economic returns and will equate to major negative impacts on the ability of the workforce to respond to the escalating and unsustainable healthcare crisis Australia now faces.”

The report revealed that each $1 invested into the NHMRC-funded health and medical research workforce (between 2000-2015) returned $3.20, equating to a net benefit, over a period of 15 years, of $23.4 billion.

Higher returns were demonstrated for particular health conditions, including cardiovascular disease ($9.80 per dollar invested) and cancer ($3.70 per dollar invested).

Dr Johnstone said these results highlighted the high value of investing in the NHMRC-funded health and medical research workforce.

And he said researchers were realistic about the findings and did not expect a 100 per cent grant success rate, he would like to see it up around the 60 to 70 per cent mark.

“There still is an opportunity for Australia to become a local hub for health and medical research, and it’s filtering down,” he said.

He said researchers were unwilling to give up.

“I think they’ve still got the fire because they believe in the research and they believe in what they’re trying to achieve,” he said.

“Australia is still performing well above where you would expect. We do science really well – there’s been big discoveries that have been life changing.

“We want to see that continue. But we need to get the foundation solid and feed the pipeline.”

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