3000 medical research positions may be lost due to COVID-19: report

By Megan Howe

12 Aug 2020

Australia could lose the next generation of medical researchers, with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic set to cause funding cuts and job losses across the country’s medical research institutes and universities, leading research bodies have warned.

The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) has called for the Federal Government to fund 300 new research fellowships for early to mid-career researchers over the next three years to secure their future.

In a submission to the Federal Government ahead of the October Budget, AAMRI said the COVID-19-related economic downturn was expected to result in a 20% cut in medical research institutes’ revenue. It has suggested this could translate into approximately 3000 positions lost over the next 12 to 24 months.

Early- to mid-career researchers were already struggling to attain grants or fellowships and were partly funded through philanthropy and fundraising, as well as by medical research institutes, AAMRI President Professor Jonathan Carapetis, a paediatric physician and infectious diseases researcher, said.

“But due to the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19, the holes in this imperfect system are turning into chasms,” he said.

“These are the researchers who have finished their PhDs, are testing hypotheses on what causes different disease, developing new treatment and vaccines. They are our best and brightest minds and the future of Australia’s medical research.“

AAMRI suggested the NHMRC fund half of the 300 proposed new investigator grants, with the other half funded by the Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

Its submission follows the release of a research report that projected the Australian research workforce as a whole would face job losses of up to 21,000 full time equivalent positions over next six months, of which 7000 could be research-related academic staff.

The report, produced by a group of 35 research sector organisations called the Rapid Research Information Forum, warned that income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies and CRCs was being impacted by the loss of international students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy.

Respiratory physician and researcher Conjoint Professor Peter Wark told the limbic it was a very uncertain time for biomedical researchers in Australia.

Professor Wark, from the Centre for Healthy Lungs, Hunter Medical Research Institute and the Department of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine at John Hunter Hospital, Newcastle, said researchers funded by existing grants and those employed by research institutes may have short-term job security. However, future philanthropic donations and seed funding for institutes were in doubt.

And with universities excluded from the Federal Government’s JobKeeker wage subsidy program, Professor Wark suggested it was the university research sector that was likely to be hardest hit by the COVID-19 economic downturn.

He added that universities were also reliant on international student fees to subsidise cutting edge research programs – a funding model that is now proving unsustainable.

“I’m not sure I would recommend people go into biomedical research now – we don’t know how the funding model will work – it’s very difficult to say.”

Rheumatologist and researcher Professor David Hunter from the University of Sydney agreed, saying that funding sources for early career researchers were becoming increasingly competitive.

“Despite increased allocation through NHMRC investigator Grants and the promise of further MRFF support, there is a very real possibility that we will lose much of the next generation of early career researchers within the next few years,” he said.

Professor Hunter, Florance and Cope Chair of Rheumatology and Chair of the Institute of Bone and Joint Research, said fewer local students may choose to undertake PhDs because of increasing costs of undergraduate courses and the economic downturn.

“Add into that the challenges of international travel and it’s very likely that any prospective international students planning to come to Australia to do a PhD are likely to decline,” he said.

“All up, it looks like it will be a tough few years ahead for attracting students and for launching early career researchers onto the next phase of their careers.”


Already a member?

Login to keep reading.

Email me a login link