News / 26 April 2024

Professor James Whisstock is the Scientific Head of EMBL Australia and the Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Medicine, Nursing & Health Sciences at Monash.

Countries rely on scientists to solve pressing problems of the day – the COVID pandemic presenting an excellent exemplar.

Central to the success of a nation’s scientific endeavour is the curiosity, energy, and ambition of the young. Early and mid-career academics (ECMAs) in health and medical research are critical for asking the “hard” and risky questions that underpin important discoveries. These researchers represent the beating heart of our nation’s pool of future scientific leaders.

However, despite their critical role in our scientific ecosystem, Australia’s current academic landscape presents close to insurmountable challenges for young scientists to overcome.

This week saw the release of a new report, The Landscape for Emerging Health and Medical Academic Leaders in Australia, which describes key issues facing EMCA staff working in health and medical research across Australian universities. The study surveyed 660 EMCAs from across Australia.

The findings in this report are of concern. Only 17% of EMCAs would advise a new PhD graduate to become an academic.

This raises questions about the future of science and biomedical innovation in Australia. We must resolve these issues to ensure we have future academic leaders who are able to combat the big challenges our society is facing.

What are the major issues facing EMCAs?

The report presents career stability and funding as being key factors turning EMCAs away from research.

The problem isn’t a lack of initial talent. The federal government invests heavily in the research training of research masters and PhD students. But, what happens next?

After their PhD, most graduates who choose to pursue a career in medical research will first need to build up their CV, which involves being employed for a few years as a postdoctoral researcher (“postdoc”) in a senior researcher’s lab, assisting with their research.

Ideally, this period will equip a researcher with the skills needed to establish their independence.

For an EMCA to succeed, their research leader must actively engage in their career development by providing support and encouragement to help them transition into an independent career.

The report highlights that this crucial contribution is often lacking, with inadequate mentorship, burnout and supervisor/postdoc power imbalances being key challenges for more than 50% of EMCAs.

The next step to become independent is to secure personal research funding (fellowships). Unfortunately, this has become increasingly out of reach for EMCAs.

A pipette with a drop of liquid containing a dollar sign

While NHMRC funding for fellowships has doubled over the past 10 years and now comprises 40% of competitive funding allocation, the increased funding has largely benefited senior researchers.

In contrast, funding for EMCA-specific fellowships has remained static, and actual EMCA fellowship numbers have declined by 40% from 2014-2023.

Indeed, in 2023 the NHMRC only awarded 113 fellowships to EMCAs across the whole of Australia. Further, despite its stated aim to deliver a skilled and sustainable health and medical research workforce, the Medicine Research Future Fund (MRFF) has not funded any career fellowships since 2019.

Currently, the MRFF only has one targeted EMCA scheme, the “Early to Mid-Career Researchers” grant opportunity, which has been run twice over the history of the fund, in 2021 and 2023.

The success rate for this scheme has fluctuated from 5.4% to 18.1% respectively, demonstrating the extremely high demand for dedicated funding for EMCAs, and the difficulty of achieving success in this space.

Funding falls short

Compounding these challenges, even if a researcher can win an NHMRC fellowship (an Investigator Grant, for example), the funds provided only partially cover their salary, together with a modest stipend for research expenses.

Current funding rules prevent an Investigator Grant holder from winning additional NHMRC funding to build their research group, and as a result, Australian EMCAs are unable to effectively compete with their better-funded international counterparts.

If we lose the next generation of health and medical researchers, we’ll be unable to adequately respond to the major challenges of our time, such as mitigating the effect of climate change on the health of society, or responding to the next global pandemic.

Clearly, the academic sector needs to do more to address significant issues in research culture.

Monash University is working with our EMCA community to co-design effective solutions to rectify these issues. We call upon other universities across Australia to do the same.

Second, we need the federal government and medical research funding bodies to reassess how they fund early career research.

Without a better path to support young researchers to become the next generation of health and medical research leaders, Australian research will face a bleak future.

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

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