Creating a Powerful Medical Research Workforce

It’s been great to see the increased awareness and debate around research funding in recent media editorials following the federal Jobs and Skills Summit. We have world-class researchers who deserve to work in a sustainable and supported sector.

Our Executive Director, Kerry Doyle, PSM OAM, reflects here on the importance of having a strategic approach to funding and what that might look like for cardiovascular research.

The medical research sector is one of the most respected and impactful industries in Australia, with over 32,000 medical researchers across the country, over 950 companies and 78,000 employees across pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical technology. In addition, Australia’s largest manufacturing export sector is Medical and Pharmaceutical products, worth $3.8 billion in 2019. Yet many talented researchers are spending large proportions of their time competing in grant schemes with low success rates, little job security, and little connectivity to health challenges.

Imagine harnessing this talent through a model that efficiently and strategically unites our best researchers with industry and the health system to tackle health challenges prioritised by the leadership of State and Federal jurisdictions.

Australia’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how this was achieved illustrates the health and potential economic impact of good governance and the power of industry and health system collaboration. We also saw the risks of not driving this collaboration to its natural conclusion. Senior scientists noted that while Australia [at that time] had comparatively few COVID patients, if all of these patients had been combined in a single clinical trial, then Australia would have been able to draw strong conclusions about how to treat the virus.

Taking these thoughts further, Australian Cardiovascular Alliance (ACvA) President Professor Gemma Figtree said, “Australian scientists are recognised globally for punching above their weight and we would benefit dramatically by taking a coordinated approach that harnesses their talent and expertise, from discovery science through translation to clinical and public health research, and works with our National and State Health leaders. This approach was applied to COVID but it’s also applicable to leading health challenges such as heart attack and stroke.”

The ACvA has worked with other peak national bodies, the Commonwealth and representatives from States and Territories to initiate the National Cardiovascular Health Leader Research Forum (HLRF). Through this forum, the pathway to collaborative and co-commissioned solutions has begun to emerge. Committing to this approach could transform medical research and its ability to solve major, long-term health challenges.

However, outstanding researchers live year to year with minimal job security and waste effort developing highly competitive yet unfunded grant applications. With 32,000 medical researchers in Australia, and a conservative 10% of time spent on grant writing, this equates to 6.4 million hours pa, with a 10-20% success rate – or over 5 million wasted research hours. To address this, in addition to the current funding systems, the sector should support an approach that strategically places our best research leaders and teams to work as closely as possible with the health system and industry on prioritised health problems. This would be complementary to NHMRC funding and create a sustainable research industry.

COVID provided the community with a poignant example of a major health problem in urgent need of solutions. The response of Australian researchers, health care and government leaders, and the broader community demonstrated the committed, diverse and innovative talent that Australia can mobilise. It also highlighted the challenge of incorporating strategic leadership and coordination to harness this talent and ensure goals are reached. 

We know that many in the scientific community recognise that the time is right for researchers to come together to achieve enduring impact from investments across the breadth of medical research.  

Cardiovascular disease has an established and open structure that makes it ripe to be a test bed for an approach that is directly relevant to other chronic disease states. If Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wants a “future powered by science” then it’s time to work with the research sector, be brave and try something different.

We need to develop governance structures with strong vision and leadership and apply our best researchers and teams to research priorities identified collaboratively by consumers, experts and representatives from all jurisdictions.

We need supporting platforms so that research is driven by data and can be scaled through nationally coordinated clinical trials and a structure that ensures relevant, evidence-based priorities are not only funded but their implementation is supported, monitored and measured.

We need an ecosystem that incentivises industry-academic partnerships across discovery science, clinical trials, data science, biomedical engineering, precision medicine and drug discovery. Together these initiatives will create research jobs and a sustainable ecosystem with substantial health gains. Exactly the kind of robust industry that is needed to power the economy in a post-COVID world.

Kerry Doyle, PSM OAM