The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the government is going to change the basis for funding university research. With the aim of increasing collaborations between the universities and industry, the suggestion, based on questions at a public forum apparently, is that the government may remove publications in books, journals and conference papers as a criterion for a significant amount of the funding received by the universities. A formal statement on the matter is expected early in December following a review of the government on its innovation program.
Although this relates to the mechanisms for university funding and hence does not have a direct impact on medical research institutes like QIMR Berghofer, there are some messages that underpin the opinions that are of great significance. For many years I have been committed to the concept that excellent research should have consequences beyond publications. The statistics in this respect in Australia are dire and need to be changed. However the old adage of ‘Too far East is West’ may apply and there is a great possibility of unintended consequences if the more extreme view of ignoring publications prevails in decision making processes.
Research of relevance to industry and with the potential to generate economic and health benefits has its roots deep in research which may not, at the time of their initiation, pass the criterion on being relevant to society. However without developing a profound understanding of an experimental system, there will be nothing of value that will come. Trying to take a shortcut directly to applications is similar to skipping the training part and expecting to win a marathon race. As in all domains there is a difference in the quality of research which is generated in laboratories. Only excellent research will provide insights, to the prepared minds, of useful and potentially useful outcomes. It is dangerous therefore to totally ignore publications or their quality in defining where funds should go.
Having analysed the operations at this Institute, I categorised the research which is ongoing here (Gannon F, The steps from translatable to translational research, EMBO Reports 2014, Vol 15, 1107-1108). There are steps from discovery through to translation into health or commercialisation and it is important that the right mix is available in an institute or in a country such that a healthy pipeline is generated. By defining the steps as basic research (D1), disease oriented research (D2), target identification (D3) and target modification (D4) prior to translation to procedures that can be tested in clinical trials, I established that 50 per cent of our research was disease oriented and 47 per cent covered the steps that screen out discoveries and enrich to the point such that they can be applied. The new funding proposals that are under discussion should take this pattern into consideration. If the outcome is that all discovery projects are excluded then there is no doubt that the pipeline will dry up very quickly. Already the NHMRC, that funds most Australian medical research, appears to look for impacts on health directly from the research that it supports and hence discovery research is harder to pursue. The ARC funding provides an alternative that may cover some of those areas closer to basic research but unfortunately researchers from the medical research institutes are, bizarrely, excluded from applying for such funds.
The overall message from the government is totally in line with the needs of the country and the demand for change such that there is better return for investment in research is timely. However it is important to avoid an excessive swing towards to practical outcomes or there will be outcomes that I see as predictable but will be classified as unexpected consequences.