Medical researchers warn Australia will lose scientists if funding is not boosted

The society representing Australian medical researchers says the country is at risk of losing high-value scientists to overseas research organisations unless funding for the sector is further increased.In 2015, 13.73 per cent of grant applications to the Federal Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) were successful in getting funding.The Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) said not enough federal money was allocated to medical research, thereby limiting the amount of applications that could be awarded funding.ASMR director Matt Dun said funding rates for medical research were at all-time low levels.He said the domestic research sector needed more funding to support the work of scientists.”Ten years ago, the success rate for NHMRC project grants was at almost 25 per cent,” Dr Dun said.”We’ve significantly dropped over the last 20 years, and particularly over the last 10.”The numbers suggest that 25 per cent of the senior research leaders that are funded by the Government have been lost in the last three years alone.”Trying to get that intellectual capital back is probably impossible.”

However, in 2014-2015, NHMRC expenditure in six of the Federal Government’s 10 health priority areas — including cancer, dementia and mental health — increased.One priority area’s funding remained stable, while three priority areas had their funding decreased.”Hitting six of 10 targets may only indicate the costs of the actual experiments to do; it doesn’t take into consideration the personnel that are required to do it,” Dr Dun said.”Although there may be more funding [being put] into research, being able to afford to pay for that research, and employing the qualified people to do the job, has not maintained — it’s actually reversed.”

The Federal Government in March said the NHMRC’s Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) would supply about $850m to Australian medical research this year.In the 2016-17 federal budget, funding for the NHMRC’s MREA was continued, while investment in the Government’s intended $20b Medical Research Future Fund was also maintained.Despite this government investment in the sector, Dr Dun said Australia was at risk of losing valuable medical researchers to overseas organisations.He said when applying for funding, researchers faced uncertainty as to whether they would have a job.”If I didn’t get funding, I’d have to go and look for work overseas,” Dr Dun said.

The Federal Government said its funding to the MREA increased from $750 million in 2013 to $850 million in 2015.They said applications to the NHMRC for grants had also increased.It said the NHMRC was being assisted by an expert advisory group in conducting an over-arching review of the structure of its grant program. A consultation paper is set to be released for public comment in July.The Health Minister Sussan Ley said in a statement the government’s Medical Research Future Fund would boost the sector.”Our Government absolutely gets the need for medical research, clearly demonstrated by us taking a Medical Research Capability policy to the this election,” she said.”The centrepiece is our Medical Research Future Fund, which will provide a sustainable source of funding, at $400 million in the next few years rising to $1 billion a year once the fund is fully established.”It will more than double current funding levels and represents the single largest investment in medical research in Australia.”

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