Joel Werner

Science Journalist

What’s ailing our science?

Posted on 14 Apr 2014 0 comments

Article originally published in The Australian (07/18/2012)

IT’S a fine autumnal Friday morning when I meet Darren Saunders at the Garvan Institute. The building is magnificent, breathtakingly so. The foyer ceiling stands as high as the building itself, all light and air. At the far end a spiral staircase imitates the helix structure of DNA – the molecule that gives life and, from the perspective of this institute, makes saving it possible.

“Few people would realise that none of the senior scientists in this institute have a secure position,” says Saunders, the senior research officer, as he leads me through a security door and past a series of laboratory spaces.

“We’re all responsible for our own funding. Essentially, it’s like all these small businesses running together, and we pay rent for our space in the building. It’s like a big science hotel.”

The main section of the building is built around a naturally lit atrium. On the ground floor is a reading library. Spread out over the eight levels above are facilities to study different disease groups: bone disease on one floor, diabetes and obesity on another, cancer and so on.

“None of the scientists in this building work less than 60-70 hours per week. That’s the norm, not the exception,” he says. “It’s a bunch of people who are passionately committed to what they do, and incredibly loyal. And not a lot of that gets reciprocated by the system.”

At face value, it’s the archetype of a thriving, successful industry; great minds working tirelessly in world-class facilities to improve the lives and wellbeing of humankind. But scratch the surface and it becomes apparent just how tenuously balanced Australian science and medical research is.

One factor feeding into the equation is the dramatic increase in the number of research funding applications – or “proposal pressure”.

Over the past decade the number of grant applications annually submitted to the National Health and Medical Research Council has doubled – from 1680 in 2001 to 3368 last year. It’s a similar situation at the Australian Research Council: between 2001 and 2008 all but one of their competitive schemes saw applications increase by about a third.

Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb argues the system is too antiquated to cope with such demand. “We’re still operating a system substantially like the one that was invented many years ago when the number of (scientists) was relatively small,” he says. “You have to ask whether this is the best process to operate in 2012 and beyond.”

Says Saunders: “The system is being gamed. People are starting to recognise that there is an element of luck involved. The system’s so overloaded we can’t possibly give an accurate review of every single application, so if they put in more applications they have a better chance of getting one through.”

NHMRC funding outcomes are reported according to three categories: “funded”, “not funded” and “fundable but not funded”. This last category captures those applications deemed worthy but unable to be accommodated due to a lack of revenue.

Last year, 52 per cent of all applications to the NHMRC were “fundable but not funded”. The figure was 36 per cent a decade ago.

Research last year by Nicholas Graves, a professor of health economics at Queensland University of Technology, found one-third of NHMRC applications stand out as excellent, one-third are easily dismissed as below par and the remaining third are almost randomly selected or not. “The fairest thing to do would be to allocate one-third of grants randomly,” Graves told the HES at the time. Others say the “block in the middle” is more than half all applications.

While young scientists face interrupted career paths and in some cases redundancies, more alarming is the impact the competition is having on the scientific process. “Research is becoming more conservative in its nature,” says Saunders.

“Truly groundbreaking science is inherently risky. There’s a chance it might not work. Because the system is trying to do its best with a small amount of money, it wants to bet on a sure-fire winner.”

Decisions made to fund or not fund involve splitting hairs on the basis of criteria such as record of academic publication. Academic publication is the gold standard by which scientific careers are measured, and in a hypercompetitive funding environment it’s the currency by which dollars are distributed. But the pressure to publish limits the capacity to innovate.

“What most people tend to do is accumulate a portfolio of funding – you have a few different sources – and you literally skim small amounts off that to try risky ideas,” says Saunders. “Everyone wants to do that blue-sky, really outstanding research that leads to the breakthroughs, but you basically have to skim bits and pieces from everywhere else to pay for those risky experiments in the hope that one of them will come off. The money is going towards safer and more derivative approaches, and that’s a big structural issue for the field as a whole.”

It’s hard to make a case against wide-ranging reform, but exactly what should be done is an easier question to ask than answer. One study under way is the “Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research” chaired by 2011 Australian of the Year Simon McKeon. Many of the issues stem from demographics.

Says Chubb: “In my day, you’d do one postdoc and get a job. These days, you do maybe three or four postdocs before you get a job – if you get a job. And, if you do, you don’t have to retire, so you’re there forever. That means somebody else coming along doesn’t have that job opportunity. And maybe that’s got to be looked at, too. The system is creaking. We’ve got to make sure we get an appropriate amount of money in the right place without breaking the backs of our best and brightest.

“We prepare people for specialisation in ways that are counterproductive. If you do a major in physics, there’s a presumption that you can only work in physics, whereas in fact you’ve been educated using a brilliant process of looking at evidence, analysing it, pulling it apart, putting it back together, taking nothing at face value – all of those things that are inherent to science.”

Merlin Crossley, dean of science at the University of NSW, says more people need to be trained in science. “That said, there will only ever be a finite number of professors of physics, so we have to make sure that people use their science in multiple careers,” he says. “An obstacle has been the perception that students with a degree in some science speciality can only possibly contribute in that specialty. This is not true, but I can’t change public and employer perceptions quickly. What I can do is provide a degree that shows students are not exclusively trained in one narrow discipline, but have both specific and broader skills.”

Crossley points to a UNSW double degree in science and business on offer for undergraduate entry next year. “It’s important to have people in the commercial and government worlds who know and appreciate science. Also, there are lots of students who like science and are good at it, but who quite rightly worry about getting a job as a pure scientist, so want to develop other skills that may help secure employment. ”