Looking back through the microscope at medical research – Part 1

12th August 2014

Medical research is highly specialised requiring, cross fertilisation, communication and collaboration to share knowledge, advance innovation and deliver impact.

This multipart blog looks back through the microscope into the labs, universities and the wider ecosystem to create a conversation about the drivers that influence behaviour, culture and focus within the research community and their institutions, and how this influences impact.

To start the conversation it is worthwhile to consider the mission or purpose of medical research.   A quick internet search will show many concepts including better health, the treatment and management of disease, generation of knowledge, early patient access to new treatments, education, and economic considerations.

It is the researchers and their institutions that provide the capability and capacity to undertake the activities required to achieve the hopes and purpose that medical research strives to offer. 

Researchers are people too.   They need to feed their families, pay their mortgage and put petrol in the car.  They seek continuity of employment, career development and promotion.  They and their institutions however rely heavily on funding from government and philanthropy.  It should be no surprise then that researchers (and their institutions), like others in the community, prioritise what is measured and rewarded.

Let’s face it, would you apply for a job that was grant dependent and required a new application every few years with a low and declining success rate (currently less than a one-in-five chance of success in the NHMRC)?

For medical researchers in Australia, employment and promotion is closely linked to a researcher’s ability to successfully gain funding from the NHMRC.  Success is in turn closely related to a researcher’s track record; past grants, continuity of funding, publications and citations.

Their institutions are also not immune to similar measurements and rewards.  The Excellence in Research Awards (ERA) also prioritises competitive grants, publications and citations and is linked to compacts (funding agreements) between the universities and government.   Similarly, other major sources of funding relate to university rankings such as fee-paying students.   University rankings are again heavily weighted towards publications and citations.

Another source of funding to Universities in Australia is Research Infrastructure Block Grants (RIBG).  RIBG funding is provided to universities based upon success in competitive grants such as the NHMRC and ARC.  Similarly, the Joint Research Engagement (JRE) scheme provides funding to Universities for collaborative research activities with industry and end-users.  It is difficult to get accurate and averaged data relating to RIBG and JRE funding, and it appears that the gap between these has reduced in recent years.  Anecdotal information however suggests that a modest, yet potentially significant bias towards competitive grants compared to industry collaborations still exists.

With the correlations and funding mechanisms outlined above, it is understandable that researchers and their institutions prioritise their research efforts towards publications that will in turn support future grants and income streams for their universities.

With the measurement and benchmarking of academic research success largely focused on publications and citations the cliche ‘publish or perish’ is well established as evidenced in the reported association between employment and publications in 2012.

Part 2 of this blog will continue to prompt the conversation by looking at the relationship between these measures, publications and the delivery of impact from biomedical research.



How important of a measure is publications?

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In your opinion, what other factors should be measured as an indicator of a research project’s success?

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    One Response to “Looking back through the microscope at medical research – Part 1”

    1. Marc Tayman says:

      Noel, your points re the research funding models in Australia are echoed by Clifton Leaf in his book “The Truth in Small Doses”. He describes similar funding model deficiencies of the NIH. He proposes fixes to the funding model as well as changes to problem solving concepts and practices applied to research questions.