Thursday, 8 May 2008

SURVEY: Perceptions in health and medical research careers

The Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) is a body which broadly represents registered health and medical researchers of Australia and also researchers in numerous affiliated associations. ASMR credits itself by acknowledging that it has a role in public, political and scientific advocacy. In late 2006, the ASMR commissioned a workforce survey which aimed to understand and improve the perceptions of researchers (registered ASMR members) in the health and medical field with an emphasis on job satisfaction, workplace conditions, brain drain/gain and the attitudes towards health and medical research in Australia.

The survey targeted 1258 registered ASMR members however only managed to recruit a total of 379 (30%) respondents. The paper acknowledged the limitations of the cohort size especially when it came to factors such as career progress (eg. student or worker), qualifications (eg. honours, PhD or post-doctoral researcher), work place (eg. university or hospital) and field of research but ensured the reader that the cohort was a close representation of a whole population on demographic variables such as sex and age.

The results of the survey were divided into four sections of which I will briefly outline the main findings:

Question 1: To what extent has each of the following factors had an impact on your career over the past 15 years
The top factors which were considered to create a negative impact on careers in health and medical research included the lack of security in employment, general lack of financial support for research and shortness of funding time frames relative to project development needs. Other options, all of which rated as having a negative impact but not as negative as the above three factors (ie. more positive) included inadequate infrastructure for research, time required to prepare grant applications, lack of managerial support and uncertainty about what funding agencies expect.

Question 2: If you have left, or have considered leaving health and medical research, how important in your decision were the following factors
The factors which were considered important to very important with this question included the shortage of funding in health and medical research, lack of career development opportunities, poor financial rewards as a health and medical researcher, shortage of work opportunities in health and medical research and availability of better employment opportunities elsewhere. The two factors which were not considered as important with this question included needing time off due to family responsibilities and the changed nature of health and medical research.

Question 3: To what extent did the following reasons have an impact on your decision to leave health and medical research in Australia to seek health and medical research employment overseas (this question was relevant to 165 respondents who indicated that they had worked or were currently working overseas)
The factors which were considered important with this question included broadening your scientific experience, collaborating with other researchers, researching new techniques, access to equipment & physical infrastructure and greater opportunities to do research. Factors which were considered important but not as important as the above mentioned included better project funding, personal interest in living outside Australia and increased quality of working environment.

Question 4: If you have returned to or are planning to return to Australia after working in health and medical research overseas, indicate your agreement with the following statements in terms of their influence on why you have returned or why you will return to Australia (this question was relevant to 165 respondents who indicated that they had worked or were currently working overseas)
The general consensus generated from this question was that in comparison to overseas employment (ie. the country where the respondent had worked or was working), 50% of respondents believed that Australia had fewer career opportunities and fewer university positions. Close to 40% of respondents believed that Australian health and medical researchers were paid less, had lower job security and had less support in comparison to overseas employment.

The results of this survey paints a poor picture of the Australian health and medical research sector but is reflective of workers’ attitudes. The main concerns of Australian health and medical researchers, as seen by this survey, are employment uncertainty and funding security and this is reinforced a number of times throughout this survey. The paper acknowledged the limitations of the study and stated that the issues may be understated because of the survey population. Although this survey only represented a very small proportion of health and medical researchers in Australia, the views and sentiments shared by this cohort, in my opinion, would be accurate if extrapolated to a larger scale. Having been in the medical research field for close to ten years, I have heard similar complaints to the responses this survey has generated and I have even faced similar difficulties myself. Securing funding (which often equates to employment security) is probably the biggest burden for researchers and is becoming increasingly difficult and more competitive as governmental budgets fail to increase proportionally to the number of postgraduate researchers produced by universities, which has increased over the years. Additionally, I believe that the nature of health & medical research has unfortunately created and perpetuated an environment where research is not being thoroughly thought through because everyone is in a mad rush to generate results, publish papers and subsequently secure funding. As a result, a lot of waste is created, money is spent unnecessarily, experiments are left incomplete due to poor design. All these factors could contribute to a loss of funding.
Speaking about a loss of funding, I read a very interesting article today in “The Scientist”, an on-line publication, titled “Losing your lab” (volume 22, issue 5, page 32) which provided examples of people who have had to shut shop and discussed the outcomes they faced and options for those in similar circumstances. In the US, the major governmental funding body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides bridge-funding awards to grant applicants who score well but are unable to secure major grants. This sort of funding is also provided by several US research institutions. This practice allows researchers to continue their post and gives them a second chance at securing funding the following year, and as described by the article, nurtures a scientist and sees them as investments for institutes that are not worth losing. I am not sure whether this practice is prevalent in Australia but it sounds like a great idea.
As to outcomes from this survey, the paper suggests “a review of current policies affecting research careers and health & medical people support in broader terms may be timely if Australia is to retain its reputation for research excellence and leadership”. The paper goes on to say that “the fact that a large proportion of respondents have considered leaving active health & medical research in Australia highlights the need for a coordinated multi-streamed approach to ensure the long-term viability of the sector. Any significant loss of Australia's highly trained health and medical research workforce represents a potential erosion of its intellectual capacity and future preparedness. To maintain Australia's competitive edge, it will be necessary to provide a career path that captures, nurtures and retains talented minds and provides fertile career opportunities” (2).

(2) Kavallaris M, Meachem SJ, Hulett, MD, West CM, Pitt RE, Chesters JJ, Laffan WS, Boreham PR and Khachigian LM (2008). Perceptions in health and medical research careers: the Australian Society for Medical Research Workforce Survey. Medical Journal of Australia. 188 (9). p520-524.
(3) McCook A (2008). Losing your lab. The Scientist. 22(5). p32

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