Scientist holding test tubes

Opinion Piece: Survival of the Fittest

Young researchers are missing out in science's survival of the fittest

3 June 2015

By Dr Louis Wang, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

A person generally embarks on a career in research for altruistic reasons. There may be an intrinsic love for science and discovery, but generally this is coupled with an equal desire to make a positive difference to society, through discoveries aimed at reducing the personal and social cost of disease, or through innovations that improve quality of life or reduce the human impact on the environment.

But offsetting all that altruism is the harsh reality of life. It is a jungle out there, and the road for early career researchers is not easy. Young researchers across Australia in the past week are celebrating the Australian Government’s promise of $417 million dollars over the next four years. And for good reason too. In the world of medical research, the recent drought in research funding has led to grant funding decisions reflecting the harsh realities of austerity.

Young researchers are particularly vulnerable in times of resource scarcity and can easily get lost in the wild or picked off by predators in a survival of the fittest scientists.

Scarcity of resources caused by successive droughts in research funding in recent years has had unfortunate effects on the medical research community. At its most severe, it devastates communities of postdoctoral scientists, who mentor and watch over research students, the loss of whom can cause mass extinctions across entire research programs. Additionally, it encourages promising young Australian researchers to move overseas in the hope of greener pastures.

Dr Louis Wang

It also affects the type of research performed. In times of limited funding, researchers become very conservative with their research questions and reputations, preferring to focus on experiments that are more likely to generate positive results.

This conservative approach is cost-effective and a necessary adaptation to the harsh climate, but some of mankind’s best discoveries and achievements were made because someone put their money, time and reputation on the line, and took a leap of faith.

Australia has been a fertile breeding ground for world-class researchers. To date, seven Australians have been awarded the Nobel Prize in the field of science. Some of the world’s greatest scientific heroes are Australian, having brought about the discovery of penicillin, the cause for stomach ulcers, the bionic ear, cervical cancer vaccine, revolutionising treatment for burns, as well as recently pioneering the successful transplantation of hearts from deceased donors.

Investing in medical research is also vitally important to Australian healthcare. As an example, death rates from cardiovascular disease have dropped by 76% since the 1960s. Research leading to disease prevention, better diagnosis and treatment will ultimately have important flow-on effects and help offset the future expected increases in health budget expenditure resulting from our ageing population.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land, the Gadigal of the Eora nation, on which we meet, work, and discover.
Our Western Australian laboratories pay their respect to the Whadjuk Noongar who remain as the spiritual and cultural custodians of their land.

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