Funding to secure the futures of early and mid-career medical researchers is urgently needed in Australia to prevent a brain drain from the sector which could leave the country more vulnerable in the event of another pandemic, the peak body for medical institutes says.
The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes has called on the federal government to fund an extra 300 investigator grants each year for three years, at a cost of $543 million over seven years, to keep researchers within the field.
The association also predicts medical research institutes will face up to a 30 per cent cut in revenue in the next two years, with a weakened economy expected to limit philanthropic donations to the sector.
The association said, in a federal budget submission, half of the funding for extra investigator grants could come from existing Medical Research Future Fund resources while $271.5 million would be needed to top up National Health and Medical Research Council grant funding.
The association's president, Professor Jonathan Carapetis, said the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the importance of Australian medical research work in an already struggling sector, which had quickly shifted to work on vaccine development, diagnostic tools and treatments for COVID-19.
Professor Carapetis said existing grant systems could be used to retain more researchers, who, when they missed out on grant funding, often left the field and took years of expertise with them.
"We need to have more of our early to mid-career researchers with a stable future, which is why it seems blindingly obvious to us that the fellowships that provide that five-year secure tenure for the best and the brightest, right now, if less than 10 per cent of them are being funded, we need to increase that," he said.
Professor Carapetis said for every $1 of funding medical research institutes received in Australia, they needed to make up a shortfall of between 30c and 50c to keep the facilities running.
"It is a system that needs to change. We need to fully fund research. We need to provide researchers much better security for their futures and then the yield will be so much better in terms of health outcomes for Australians thanks to Australian science," he said.
Neuroscience group leader at the Australian National University's John Curtin School of Medical Research Dr Nathalie Dehorter said government money spent on students' education was an important investment in the nation's future, but its benefit would be lost if students were not supported into research careers.
Dr Dehorter, who is internationally recognised as an emerging neuroscience expert, said she moved from France in 2017 to establish her laboratory because of the potential she saw in Australia.
She said the stress of working in the field could have an effect on the number of prospective students looking to become researchers.
"It's not necessarily the case right now but I'm suspecting that in the future if we do not anchor early and mid-career researchers, that will happen. Then you will have a significant drop in interest from generation to generation," Dr Dehorter said.