Looking back through the microscope at medical research – Part 2

18th August 2014

Part 1 of this blog started with a conversation looking at current funding models and the way they influence the priorities of researchers and their institutions.  Part 2 continues to prompt the conversation by looking at the relationship between these measures, publications and the delivery of impact from biomedical research.


funding continuum


The funding models and reward structures discussed in part 1 prioritise the ‘publish or perish’ funding continuum where impact may be described as a bi-product as shown above in blue. 

Some funders of medical research may, however, prefer that we moved towards a focus on outcomes and impact as shown above in red.  Of course this would mean that funding would not only be available for academic research, but also for research and other activities that support translation and commercialisation.  They also need to consider the important role publications can play in supporting impact.


Track record vs impact

One question to consider is the relationship between established track record (continuity of funding and publications) and impact.  Whilst it is assumed that younger researchers may not have the same track record as mid-career or established researchers, does it mean that the impact from their research is potentially less significant?

Whilst more robust analysis is needed, anecdotal evidence suggests that track record on its own is not a good measure of the potential for impact.   A quick review of Australian Nobel Laureates suggests that many of the researchers (not all medical) conducted their ground-breaking research earlier in their careers.  Prof Brian Schmidt (~27), Prof Elizabeth Blackburn (~36), Prof Barry Marshall (~31), Prof Peter Doherty (~31) and Sir John Cornforth (~34).


Competing for resources

Prioritising the need for publications means that research that is considered ‘boring’ or not interesting for a publication, is not undertaken.  With limited time and resources it is not surprising that emphasis is placed on research that is academically interesting, particularly if researchers’ jobs depend on it.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that researchers may focus on the activities they can do in their teams’ laboratory that are publishable and not on the broader research questions to support innovation advancement or uptake. 

It also means that research often lacks the benefits and efficiencies associated with collaboration and accessing external skill sets as the money is spent internally.

This was profoundly evident during a roundtable when an industry partner stated that they couldn’t engage a university research group as they were told the potential for publication was limited, even though the research outcome was highly relevant to industry.

Australian researchers often refer to our high relative publication rates (per capita) in the area of medical research.  Is this unduly influenced by what isn’t done? 


Career interruption

Researchers currently find it difficult to have breaks from academic research positions.  This is true whether the break is about a move into industry, time in a start-up company to advance their innovation or taking maternity/paternity leave.  These breaks can disrupt the ‘publish or perish’ funding continuum.  A move away from the high level of importance given to continued grant funding and publications in the employment process might motivate researchers to innovate, take risks and help parents return to work after time away to look after their children.

I wonder how many grants try to support researchers returning to work yet reinforce the ‘publish or perish’ continuum?


Industry confidence

The measurement of the quality of research as mentioned in part 1 is often considered to be associated with publications and citations, where industry is more concerned with reproducibility and robustness.

Most academic laboratories do not have formal quality systems in place such as ISO, GLP or GMP.  This means that some research cannot be used to support translation through regulatory frameworks without repetition.  An understanding of quality systems is also required by researchers working in, or with, industry and can be a hurdle in employing researchers from academia.

Industry and venture capital play a critical role in enabling research discoveries and innovations to develop and become devices, diagnostics, medicines and vaccines. 

Industry confidence in the quality of research in the innovation pipeline is a key factor in innovation uptake.  Industry has become somewhat sceptical of publications as a measure of quality as outlined in a number of articles summarised by the Boston Globe.


It is about getting the balance right between funding models, developing and testing new funding models that support a greater focus on impact to supplement current funding systems.  Part 3 will look to promote a conversation about strategic social investments.

see Part 3



Are current funding systems, reward structures and performance measures supporting translational goals?

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