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Editorial- Research Review 2012

Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor

In the current economic climate one has to admire the courage and commitment of those who choose to embark upon a career in biomedical research.  In the past research was largely supported by universities and governmental agencies through the provision of salaries and overhead costs, and researchers were expected to secure funding for the provision of ancillary staff and materials.  Over the last 15 years the research landscape has changed dramatically.  The decline in funding for tertiary institutions means that researchers must now, in addition to funding the research project itself, also obtain funding for salaries and overheads.

In addition to these requirements the implementation of performance based research funding in universities has provided added pressure to researchers.  In this model universities receive funding based upon post-graduate degree completions and the research outputs of individual researchers.  This means that the quality of research outputs of both individual researchers and the university as a whole are regularly assessed and funding is allocated accordingly.  This has serious implications for individual researchers who are now categorised as research inactive (category R) or research active (category C).  Additional steps are also available and are merit based, with categories A and B being equated to outputs of international (A) or national (B) significance.  In order to achieve recognition in these higher categories researchers are expected to assemble a portfolio of high quality publications over a six year cycle and these are assessed independently of previous successes and international recognition.

While much research is incremental with succeeding studies being based upon earlier results, truly significant findings are often serendipitous and as a consequence unexpected.  In view of this it would seem unreasonable to expect researchers to achieve important breakthrough on a regular basis and in practice this rarely happens.  Further it seems rather illogical to determine that a researcher, who has been assessed as being internationally recognised in one assessment round, could have lost that reputation and be downgraded six years later.

In previous issues of the Research Review I have commented on the availability of contestable funding for research and it is disappointing to report that this situation is little changed from previous years.  For the current round of funding from the Health Research Council, $65.5 M was made available for funding all research activity.  Not only did this include applications for programme and individual project grants, but also partnership research activities which includes information gathering for Government agencies.  The limited nature of this funding level is best illustrated by the rather disappointing statistic that only 7% of research grant applications were approved for funding.  This means that 93% of applications received by the Health Research Council will require funding from other sources, which themselves are very limited and failing that, the research project will not proceed.  Researchers require a constant supply of funding to survive and if this is not forthcoming they will simply have to seek alternative employment – a situation that is occurring not uncommonly today.

The question arises are we training too many researchers?  This may be an unpalatable truth in the context of available funding;  however, it would be clearly counter-productive to curtail research and diminish the already small pool of researchers on the basis of a temporary funding shortage.  In Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States much greater levels of funding are available and at present many of our bright trainees graduate, emigrate and utilise their talents offshore to the benefit of their newly adopted country. 

Despite all these negative features there is some hope on the horizon.  The Health Select Committee report on research and clinical trials released last year recognised the value of research to the community, with specified benefits being the recruitment and retention of quality health professionals, the development of innovative treatments and the delivery of quality medical care.  The Government in response to the Health Select Committee report has signalled a research role for District Health Boards and this should significantly increase research opportunities.  A further positive strategy would be the establishment of a collaborative funding programme involving the Health Research Council and non-Governmental research funding agencies, as this could reduce duplication of activity and promote efficiencies both by researchers and funders alike.  These strategies would only go a small way to redressing the current research funding deficit and the simple fact remains that more funding is required.

Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor

Research Advisory Committee Membership

Professor Brett Delahunt (Chair)

Dr David Ackerley

Professor Carl D Burgess

Associate Professor Duncan C Galletly

Dr Rebecca Grainger

Dr T William Jordan

Dr Jo Kirman

Professor Graham Le Gros

Professor John H Miller

Editorial- Research Review 2012

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