Part 3 of looking back through the microscope at medical research attempts to encourage conversation about making effective, strategic social investments in biomedical research.
As with any business, donor or government, resources are not infinite and outcomes are best achieved by getting the balance right in what is supported and how it is supported. We also must not forget why we are supporting an activity in the first place.
Governments, industry and philanthropy each play important parts working with our biomedical research community. They share a common goal of creating and delivering better health outcomes.
To achieve this common goal, we need an active and vibrant research community with the facilities and career paths to encourage and support our best and brightest researchers of today and tomorrow. We also need to support the science, discoveries and innovations with systems and resources that allow them to fail early or advance quickly when opportunities are validated.
Most grants support the research, collection, analysis and interpretation of data (and subsequent publication), but not what is required beyond this point. The next steps, like the originating research, remains constrained by our institution’s resources and often the focus turns towards the next grant that supports the next piece of research in the ‘publish or perish’ cycle.
Translation is not only about the science; it requires many additional skills beyond the researchers to deliver the outcomes the initial funding hoped to achieve. It is, however, often research teams alone that are funded, expecting that institutions would support the next steps when community benefits may arise. Translation and commercialisation, however, are generally under-resourced in institutions that may see these activities as expense centres, not revenue generators, and less important than blue-sky research.
If we only fund research, but measure its value on unfunded translational outcomes, can we expect good results?
In the most part, funders don’t work as well as a whole to coordinate how funding can be applied to support the entire pathway, rather than funding the exact same part that someone else is supporting. Most of the resources currently available are applied predominantly to support the same thing, with similar measures of success (publications and funding). Instead, if government, philanthropy and industry worked together with researchers and their institutes in developing a comprehensive funding system it might ensure that the allocation of funds is a bit more balanced.
How many grants and researchers plan for success and consider the translational pathway and their contribution towards it early in the process?
Government organisations such as the NHMRC and ARC are the biggest funders of research in Australia. Researchers and our institutions understandably depend on these traditional sources of funding for continued revenue streams and employment. Industry is at the other end of the innovation pathway and Australia is performing poorly in connecting the two to deliver research outcomes.
Philanthropy has the opportunity to think differently and do differently, to test ideas and provide strategic support alongside current funding mechanisms to deliver better health outcomes.
Funders of research should look beyond their purpose to the strategies they adopt in achieving it. More often than not a medical research donor’s purpose relates to a disease or condition, but by looking at the part of the problem they are trying to solve and what others are doing they may be more effective.
Grant makers may consider for instance if their strategy is trying to; build capability and capacity, help young and future researchers, test very early ideas and concepts, or to top up current areas of underfunded research. They should also consider any duplication and if their measures of success align with their strategy.
Another option is to look at systematic needs, including knowledge and funding gaps along the translation pathway. Grant makers have the potential to support change, encourage activities currently not supported by the system and support translation. This approach may require access to new skills and experiences for the donor, a foundation and their scientific reviews.
Our strategic support is focused on advancing innovation and enabling collaborations. By funding the innovation and not the researcher we aim to encourage research that answers questions important to translation and potential industry partners/investors and not focus on publications. This approach encourages researchers to apply for funding that does not go into their own labs. It supports key research that is conducted by others with the skills and capabilities to advance the innovation and in the process enables new collaborations to be formed.
Step-by-step we look to help de-risk innovations and advance across the valley-of-death.