Action needed to stem exodus of medical researchers: report

Early and mid-career researchers in medicine face a cut-throat competitive culture that disadvantages women and people working beyond larger centres, an Australian report shows.

Factors such as low funding success and lack of job security need to be addressed because the pressures are driving many people away from research, the authors of a new survey say.

Published in the pre-print server medRxiv, the ‘Strategies to Support Early and Mid-career Cardiovascular Researchers to Thrive’ paper suggests several solutions to support the retention of early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs) through more capacity supports and equitable opportunities to promote a more collaborative culture.

Based on interviews with 34 early and mid-career cardiovascular researchers who had practised in the last five years, a common theme was that researchers were demoralised by limited funding opportunities and low grant application success rates. Respondents said the current funding and career-progression framework in Australia reduced opportunities for women, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and researchers without a clinical background.

“It was felt that opportunities were disproportionately provided to a few dominant research groups in a ‘success begets success’ model. There was also a perception that expectations and workload were constantly increasing, and ‘you can never do quite enough’,” the report noted.

Respondents also perceived the medical research system to favour males, particularly in relation to being able to manage career disruption and to maintain a constant track record of successful grant applications, publications, attending scientific conferences and project leadership.

“Participants identified that the current metrics only rewarded a narrow set of successes and did not support a collaborative culture,” the study authors said.

The participants suggested a range of ideas to overcome the competitive culture including increasing peer collaborations, using seed funding and cross-sector engagement between researchers and clinicians, researchers and consumers and industry partnerships.

“The work culture that participants valued most was a cohesive, collegial, and collaborative environment that provides support and mentorship,” they said. “To enable the sector to move towards team-based approaches, funding needs to be directed at teams, with varying skills and levels of experience, rather than at an individual level.”

The report also called for more emphasis on mentoring and the development of leadership and financial skills among junior researchers. These activities should be included in metrics to value a range of experiences in career progression, they said.

“The status quo will not do. Today’s early and mid-career researchers [EMCR] and tomorrow’s future leaders are looking for inclusive and supportive workplaces and are wishing to transform competitive workplaces to ones of collaboration,” the authors concluded.

“To enable change to occur, action will be required across multiple levels from EMCR-led initiatives and representation to the organisational and policy level, with the support of senior leadership,” they said.

Katharine McBride a PhD candidate at SAHMRI, Adelaide, who was awarded a 2021 CSANZ Indigenous Health Prize for her work on Aboriginal women’s cardiovascular health, said the need to overcome barriers was similar across many research fields.

“Supporting and retaining and growing early and mid-career researchers is something that all areas of research recognise as a challenge,” she said.

“Often, opportunities for networking and collaboration can feel few and far between. Local and state networks can support this to occur for ECRs and MCRs.”

She said people within the research community should also “take ownership” and work to change the environment to grow collaboration.

“Funding bodies are looking for evidence of collaboration. We have the opportunity to change this, to promote and foster collaborations,” she said. “We need to define the culture that we want in the future.”

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