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

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 instrinsic 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. 

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.

 Medical research is an investment in our future. We cannot save lives, improve health, quality of life, reduce impact of disease, and improve energy efficiency without groundbreaking discoveries. But we can’t make groundbreaking discoveries without investment in medical research.

This budget provides hope – not just for an early career researcher, but for Australia’s future. This funding boost may very well encourage a young undergraduate science student or a high school student who is interested in science to stay true to the path, someone who may have otherwise been lured into another career and lost to Science forever. And who knows? That high school student hearing the Abbott Government’s pledge in the past week may end up being the one who finds the cure for cancer, or a new source of energy that mankind desperately needs…he or she might even become Australia’s next Nobel Laureate.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald