Politics: Save Our Scientists (an opinionated post)

As you may know, I herd medical researchers for a living. Currently, I’m herding cancer researchers (principally leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancers), but in the past I’ve also herded diabetes researchers (both types), arthritis researchers, and researchers into coeliac disease.

One of the things that is a constant in all forms of medical research is the endless quest for funding. This tends to go in cycles – labs will get a nice Program Grant from somewhere and a bunch of fellowships and have enough money to support lots of researchers and do all sorts of useful things – from working out exactly which genes switch on or off a cell’s ability to die when it has been damaged by disease or radiation (which may sound very theoretical but is in fact the basis for a number of cancer therapeutics), to setting up entire clinical trials to test a vaccine that might prevent type 1 diabetes.

And then the grant comes to an end, and we have a problem. We start spending a lot of our research time applying for more grants, which we may or may not get. Less established researchers start applying for fellowships – and also for jobs in other Institutes where someone has a nice, large Program grant which will help support them. If we’re lucky, we get our funding renewed and everything continues. If we are less lucky, the junior scientists don’t get their fellowships, the senior researchers get enough funding for their own salaries and projects but not enough to support postdocs who should, at least in theory, have their own fellowships anyway, and the junior scientists disappear to other institutes or countries or out of science entirely.

The Australian Government is currently looking for places to cut funds in their upcoming budget, and one area they are considering is research funding, including medical research funding. This may be a short-term measure, or a longer-term one. Either way, the effects will be fairly mild in the short-term (which is, I suppose, what makes it appealing), but disastrous in the long term.

In the immediate term, cutting funds to medical research doesn’t affect outcomes, and there are two reasons for this.

First, the fact is that it takes a very long time to get something from the lab into clinical practice. You need to get proof-of-concept in an animal model. You need to do a small safety trial in humans. Then you need to do another trial to see if it actually works. Then one, often, to calibrate dosage. Then, depending on the therapeutic, one to check that there are no major long-term side-effects. Oh, and you have to find someone who wants to produce it, of course. So the therapies and the discoveries that are going to show up on the shelves or the news over the next few years have, by and large, already been made. Most of the work has been done, and the odds are there is already a commercial company supporting the final phase of development. It’s the discoveries that are in their early stages that are going to be frozen and left incomplete, but those won’t be hitting the news for another ten years or more – if they make it that far.

Which leads me to the second, and in my view, even more important reason.

Cutting funds to medical research will have a relatively small negative effect on the most senior scientists in the field, the ones who are in a position to push the research along and through to translation. If you are mid-late career, you generally have some pretty good papers and research behind you, which translates to an ability to get grants. The grants will be smaller, it will be harder to get things done because you will have less money for research assistants and consumables and PhD students, but with a name already established, you will have options (including the option of funding from overseas, though this, too, is getting harder to come by). But it’s another story for young researchers, people who have not, perhaps, done all that much – yet.

These junior post-docs and PhD students are the people who will be making the important discoveries in twenty years time.

These are the researchers who will carry through the studies that are currently being done on plates and in test tubes all the way through the process of trials in mice, to preliminary trials in humans to, eventually, a therapy or a palliative or a cure or a vaccine.

And these are the researchers who will not get funding when times are tight. *

No funding means no jobs. No jobs means that these researchers will – if we are lucky – move overseas to somewhere medical research is better funded. If we are less lucky, they will leave research entirely, and we will lose the contributions they would have made.

At the moment, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funds most research that gets carried out in Australia, but as a relatively small country, our funds are somewhat limited. To give you an idea of how limited I’m talking about, according to NHMRC figures, in 2009 81% of NHMRC project grant applications were considered by reviewers to be high enough quality to be granted funding – but only 23% of applications were actually funded.

And this is before any funding cuts.

I’ve been in labs with good ongoing funding and ones who are constantly desperately chasing funding. The difference in productivity – and in morale – is unbelievable.

I could write a lot more about this, and I probably will. I could write about all the discoveries that have been made by Australian scientists, from the cochlear ear implant to the cervical cancer vaccine. And I will be writing about these things when I write to my various politicians later in the week.

What I’m hoping, however, is that I won’t be the only one writing.

If you are interested in the future of Australian medical research, please take a few minutes to visit the Discoveries Need Dollars website, and have a read about the sort of things we are doing, and how to contact your politicians. There is also a Facebook Cause and a Twitter stream (@protectresearch). There is even a Twibbon (!).

Please also spread the word – we are hoping that everyone in Australia who has benefited from medical research (and that is most of us, really) will get on board with this effort, and help us lobby the government not to cut the budget. This has worked in the UK, and I believe the US is trying to do the same – because medical research is important! It’s the whole reason why I have no interest in time travel, in fact, but that’s another story.

(one of our PhD students just wandered past and asked what I was doing. I told her that I was telling everyone that she was the future of medical research. She said “Maybe not. Maybe in 20 years I’ll be a hobo, begging for change outside medical research institutes: ‘I used to be a scientist! I used to be one of you!'” So you see, it’s all very tragic when you think of it that way…!)

* these are also, I can’t help adding, my lovely baby postdocs whom I’ve helped bring up and whom I have often written about, and so I feel quite personally invested in this – please don’t let my children starve!!

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