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Editorial- Research Review 2014

Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor

The popular perception is that medical research is a dynamic endeavour, frequently punctuated by discoveries that lead to the development of treatments for previous incurable diseases.  In reality the converse is nearer the truth, with any progress being made in slow incremental steps impeded by numerous road blocks in the form of failed hypotheses.  While the media frequently contains reports of research successes – whether genuine or hoped for, these reports usually do not reflect the enormous effort that must often be expended by researchers simply to ensure that projects continue through to their planned conclusion.

Beyond the design and conduct of experiments, researchers are usually required to source their own funding, not only to cover the true cost of the experiment but also to fund their own salaries, that of their research staff as well as the overheads of hosting institution.  This latter requirement is a relatively novel one, and is the result of the current fiscal environment for tertiary institutes where funds are either capped or in decline.  The role of a university is to promote innovative and independent thought, with a major defining feature of the institution being that teaching is informed by research activities undertaken on site.  As such any university has, by definition, a responsibility to promote the research activities of its academic staff.  By necessity this responsibility is being progressively abrogated through loss of tenured research positions as well as an increasing requirement for researchers to fund overheads, as well as contributing towards the funding of central university activities.  The end result of these changes to the funding model for university-based research means that researchers are now expected to source full-cost recovery, as well as university overheads, from granting agencies.  This all means that researchers often spend more time seeking avenues of funding than they do undertaking the research itself!

One would assume that science is a level playing field and that the apparent merit of a proposed research project would be the only criterion used by granting bodies to award funding.  While this is true for some granting agencies – and it is the policy of the Wellington Medical Research Foundation to apply merit-based criteria only when assessing grant applications – this is not universal.  We now live in a world where research is “purchased” and as such political interference is not unheard of.  Some years ago Health Research Council funding was prioritised which meant that any proposed research activity that fell outside the defined areas of priority was less likely to be funded.  The nonsense of this policy became obvious as researchers rushed to seek funds through priority-based grant applications, regardless as to whether or not they had any genuine expertise in the field.  This raises the risk that research undertaken in such instances may be of poor quality or may even fail.  As a consequence funding applied to such projects would be wasted with researchers who sought support for “non-favoured” topics being the clear losers.

Despite all the obstacles placed in the way of researchers, a career as a research scientist can be highly satisfying, but such endeavours are not for those who lack commitment.  Alexander Fleming-like serendipitous discoveries are rare, while success resulting from a slow and steady logical approach, with three steps forward and two steps back, is the norm.  Perhaps the best example of this is the story of Robin Warren who was a hospital staff pathologist in Perth, Western Australia.  In the 1970s he noticed the presence of peculiar bacteria on the surface of gastric biopsies from patients with gastritis and gastric ulcers.  At that time peptic (gastric) ulceration was thought to be due to a variety of factors, of which acid hypersecretion was considered the most important.  Patients were often subjected to surgical procedures with little or no benefit and the major risk was the development of life threatening haemorrhage or gastric cancer.  Warren believed that his seagull shaped bacteria were the cause of gastric ulceration but his observations were widely ridiculed.  In time he developed a professional association with Barry Marshall, a medical registrar undergoing training as a physician.  In order to prove an association between the bacteria and gastritis/gastric ulceration, Marshall drank a bacterial culture and subsequent biopsies provided convincing evidence of cause and effect.  Gradually the Warren hypothesis was accepted and now Helicobacter pylori is recognised as the cause gastric ulceration and has been classified as a Class 1 carcinogen.  Warren’s persistence and incremental observations have meant that millions of patients have been spared needless operations and have been cured of the risk of developing gastric cancer.  Not surprisingly Warren and Marshall were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.  This simple discovery, based upon astute observation and extreme perseverance, has changed the world.

Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor

Research Advisory Committee Membership

Professor Brett Delahunt (Chair)

Dr David Ackerley

Dr Peter Bethwaite

Associate Professor Duncan C Galletly

Dr Rebecca Grainger

Associate Professor Anne La Flamme

Professor Graham Le Gros

Professor John H Miller

Dr Kyle Perrin

Editorial- Research Review 2014

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