Australia: a scientific Banana Republic – Is there hope?

By Professor Bob Graham, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

Australia has a proud record of achievements in science that have witnessed blockbuster discoveries and outputs, such as the Bionic Ear, a vaccine for cervical cancer and recently, our world first successful resuscitation and transplant of a heart-in-a-box, with recognition at the highest level on the international stage in terms of Nobel and other prizes.  

 Nevertheless, funding of the research sector, arguably one of the nation’s most productive, has not kept pace with our population growth and the increased research needs to address urgent issues, such as ageing and obesity; major illness, such as heart disease and cancer, and global threats, such as equine encephalitis and Ebola.

In addition, well-intentioned but ill-informed people have too heavily influenced planning by, and leadership of, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). As a consequence, funding by the NHMRC, the nation’s major provider of biomedical research grants, is in rapid decline. Of the 3,700 applications submitted to the NHMRC in 2014, just 14.9% were funded. That’s the lowest success rate in the 75-year history of the NHMRC, and this is expected to fall further in 2015, to just 12%.

This abysmal grant success rate is crippling the nation’s scientific progress, increasing the brain drain, jeopardising overseas recruitment, and threatening to wipe out an entire generation of young researchers—in essence, a crisis that demands drastic action or else Australia will rapidly become a Scientific Banana Republic; a situation that may be immutable or will take decades to reverse.

Successfully addressing a crisis takes courage and leadership. In this regard the Federal Government’s proposed development of a Medical Research Future Fund, with its promise of a sustained increase in research funding, is an essential and welcome initiative. But it is by no means certain to receive sufficient bi-partisan support to be enacted, and if established, will take several years before it yields a substantial increase in funding.

More hopeful in the short term is the very recently announced change in the leadership of the NHMRC. The new CEO, Prof Anne Kelso, is a highly respected scientist with a track record of innovation and pragmatism. We welcome her appointment and look to her wisdom, courage and leadership for a glimmer of hope at the end of a very long tunnel.

 Several simple moves by the NHMRC that Prof Kelso might want to consider, which, if enacted, would immediately improve grant-funding levels and restore confidence in the scientific enterprise, include:

 i ) A temporary moratorium on 5-year grants (whilst such grants, rather than the usual 3-year grants, are laudable as they provide greater stability and reduce wasteful time spent on the repeated writing and re-writing of grants, they seriously reduce the number of grants that can be funded each year—a situation that is untenable at times of funding austerity);

 ii) A reduction in the number of grants any individual investigator can hold from six to three (whilst few people hold more than three grants and hence the impact will be limited, this initiative will help to reduce the number of grant applications submitted each year)

 iii) A temporary cap on the total amount of funds allocated to any 3-year grant (many will object to this suggestion, but receiving at least some funds allows continuity of employment for research staff).

 iv) The quarantining of a proportion of grant funds specifically for the project-support of young scientists, for example, those within 5 years of receiving their PhD or MD degree.

 But if we are to address the crisis in Australian science, we will also need courage and support from the scientific community, who must look to Australia’s long-term scientific future, and we will also need help from universities, who, cash strapped themselves understandably look to the rewards of government funding by churning out PhDs in as short a time as possible. This results in a glut of PhDs, many of whom are poorly equipped for a lifelong career in the highly competitive world of research.

 Finally, we will need vision and resolve from the government. The secretariat responsible for the day-to-day activities of the NHMRC, for example, is grossly underfunded, when compared to similar agencies in the US, UK and Canada. This limits the efficient evaluation and continued review of grant-applications. Even a modest increase in the funding of the secretariat would help.

 But importantly, as noted by esteemed US scientist and businessman, Norman R. Augustine1, even in times of fiscal restraint, as we have today in Australia, indeed especially in times of fiscal restraint, “the key, if one wishes to survive long term, is the difference between spending for investment and spending for consumption….Research in the biomedical sciences appears to be among the soundest investments the nation can make on behalf of its citizenry”.

 Robert M. Graham, AO, FAA, FAHMS, MD

1Augustine NR. Is biomedical research a good investment? J Clin Invest. 124:5087-89, 2014

Originally published in the AFR