Medical research funding must think in a more joined-up way

Mon, Nov 25, 2013, 01:00

We all need a reality check from time to time, a fresh perspective offered by someone with an outsider’s view. It pulls you up short and forces you to reconsider why and how you are doing things, and identifies room for improvement.

The Medical Research Charities Group ( recently underwent a reality check, a close, critical scrutiny of how it pursues its ambition to promote medical research in Ireland. The group includes about 30 of our best-known and trusted research and patient support charities who are involved in improving clinical treatment through the conduct of medical research. It declares a core believe in today’s health research delivering tomorrow’s healthcare.

The group wasn’t satisfied to assume it was doing things right. It wanted to know it was and so engaged Prof Bernie Hannigan, professor of immunology at the University of Ulster, to study the charities’ role in the health research funding landscape. Hannigan is also an interim joint chief scientific adviser to the Northern Ireland Assembly and is seconded to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Northern Ireland.

Her findings were specific to the Medical Research Charities Group but without a doubt they could readily be applied to the wider research community. Her findings also show up gaps in our system, the kind that, if left unfilled, will thwart the Government’s ambitions to derive both jobs and high-tech company start-ups from State-funded discovery research.

Hannigan discussed issues with funders of science and recipients of their awards. She talked to the universities, academic and clinical researchers, focus groups and had the results of an online survey. She presented her conclusions at a conference organised by the group earlier this month in Dublin on “health research in a changing environment”.

Strategic co-ordination
Her first observation was that the funding coming from the various charities was provided without overall strategic co-ordination. One could argue that each charity has its own specific research agenda, making co-ordination difficult, but there is also a view that you can get more bang for your buck if you pull together in a more joined-up way.

Many other conclusions provided by Hannigan unfortunately seemed all too familiar and readily applicable to the wider research community in Ireland. One related to the research prioritisation exercise which identified 14 areas where Ireland should plug in research backing. Many researchers are unhappy about the selection, saying wide areas of science and mathematics are left out. This seems to be what Hannigan found, saying it “creates gaps in the funding of certain types of projects and certain researcher career stages”.

Another central component of the Government’s jobs-driven research agenda is to facilitate the smooth transition of research discovery through to useful commercial product or new clinical treatment. This is the plan but it is not always seen in execution, with projects getting hung up in the intermediate stages between the initial discovery and the delivery of an end-point.

The report highlighted problems with career development and progression, another very familiar failing in the wider research environment. Looking at the medical end of the research spectrum, Hannigan pointed to a situation where the funders were supporting well-established researchers and PhD students but were not protecting the post-doctoral cohort.

This in part comes down to the infamous EU fixed-term working directive because it has made third-level employers “risk-averse so non-permanent staff are less secure than previously”, Hannigan says. The result is the same whether you are in medicine or physics, the post-docs on recurrent one-year contracts with no guarantees are forced to look abroad for opportunities. These are not the kind of valuable, experienced people we can afford to lose. And it is not just looking for a fatter pay cheque – experienced post-docs are at an age where people start to get married, have children and get mortgages, a time when security of tenure is essential.

Greater networking
Some of the problems encountered by Hannigan could be diminished or resolved with more networking, she says. This is true of the general research community and is reflected in the need to bring in other third-level institutions to build research consortiums that also have private sector participation. It is more difficult for a small country like Ireland to achieve depth in a given research area, but we are managing it for sectors such as nanotechnology and immunology and new materials among others.

The charities are effective and motivated and undoubtedly will take much from Hannigan’s report. But similar gaps and problems exist within the broader research landscape and a change of approach seems warranted. Given the jobs arising from research emphasis imposed by Government, anything helping to close gaps in the discovery to product, service or clinical treatment continuum is the first thing that needs fixing.

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