Australian of the Year awards: What's the state of medical research funding in Australia?

Australian of the Year awards: What's the state of medical research funding in Australia?

Australian of the Year awards: What's the state of medical research funding in Australia?

Updated 26 January 2017, 16:20 AEDT

Australian of the Year recipient Alan Mackay-Sim used his acceptance speech to urge politicians to think beyond the political horizon when it comes to research funding — so where does Australia sit in comparison with the rest of the world?

When Alan Mackay-Sim accepted his Australian of the Year award, he urged politicians to think beyond the political cycle when it comes to research funding.

So where does Australia sit in comparison with the rest of the world when it comes to medical research funding?

According to a Deloitte Access Economics report for the Australian Society for Medical Research, the nation's share of world health and medical research output has risen to 3.8 per cent (as of 2012).

That is up from 2.5 per cent in 2002.

At the same time, the number of medical researchers in the workforce has increased by more than 5,000 in the last decade.

The problem is that funding for project grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) — a key source of money for researchers — has remained largely static. The council is funded by the Federal Government.

A quarter of scientists face 'uncertain' future

More workers + similar pot of money = fewer successful applicants. That means it is harder for health and medical researchers to stay in the industry.

Late last year, research by the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) found that almost one in four scientists were "uncertain" about whether they would be employed next year because it was so difficult to get research funding.

The report found 15 per cent of Australia's scientific workforce had already left, which the organisation said was "the tip of the iceberg".

In 2010, the NHMRC spent $383 million on project grants and 683 of the 2984 (22.8 per cent) applicants were successful.

In 2016, only 539 of the 3550 (15.1 per cent) applicants received a share of the $451 million of NHMRC project grant funding.

How do we stop the turnover of young scientists?

Funding for research usually lasts between one and five years, before researchers are forced to reapply.

Many researchers feel the huge amount of work needed to constantly prepare grant applications that may or may not get funded is unsustainable and ultimately discouraging them from applying.

It is a point that Professor Mackay-Sim has already discussed with the Prime Minister.

"I raised the issue of careers for young scientists and steady careers are not just turned over every three years looking for new work as grants expire," Professor Mackay-Sim said.

The number of younger scientists applying for early career scholarships with the NHMRC has fallen since 2013 — from 523 down to 490.

Professor Mackay-Sim called for more investment in young scientists to give them great careers.

"I think we need to have more obvious paths for people. They are coming into this when they have got their ideas and their passion," he said.

"[We need to ensure] they don't reach a kind of ceiling, which they often do in their mid-30s because there is no further path for them."

There is more funding on the horizon. By 2021, the Federal Government's Medical Research Future Fund is expected to provide $1 billion per year of funding for medical research over the medium to longer term.

Professor Mackay-Sim is already using his new position to start the conversation about what should happen — and how much should be spent — in the meantime.

The NHMRC is currently reviewing its grants program, but without more funding, some in the industry fear it may not make a meaningful difference.