Politics: Save Our Scientists # 2

There will be a rallies around Australia today, asking the Government to protect medical research. (Hopefully, the Melbourne one will not be an underwater rally. I am officially on umbrella duty – holding umbrellas over speakers and towelling off the stage so people don’t fall over.)

Remember, a surplus may be a pleasing thing, but the reason governments tax us is so that they can do useful things with the money, not to build up a nice little pile of coins. Yes, we are in deficit. Yes, we should be aiming to get out of deficit. But we don’t need to do this all in one year, and especially not in a year when many people have already found themselves cash-strapped due to natural disasters.

Reducing medical research funding is short sighted – medical research is like a relay race; the big clinical trial that I helped set up in 2004 to see if we could prevent type 1 diabetes in at risk children is based on work done in the 70s and 80s and even earlier – work that showed what the immune cells were doing, work that investigated immune pathways in mice with and without autoimmune diseases, studies that figured out which children were at risk of diabetes in the first place, and trials that demonstrated that intranasal insulin was safe. That’s forty years to get from concept to a clinical trial, and it will be another ten or so before the treatment goes on the market, if it does.

There are, in fact, some researchers who were starting out in the 1970s as young PhD students and who are still involved in this research as 60+-year olds. They will probably still be seeing things through into the clinic as 70-year-olds, because researchers don’t tend to retire. It’s quite literally a lifetime of work.

But, actually, those PhD students in the 1970s couldn’t have started their PhDs if researchers in the 1950s hadn’t started figuring out things about autoimmunity. And if researchers around the turn of the century hadn’t figured out how to isolate insulin and use it to keep people with diabetes alive in the first place. And nobody’s research career is that long.

We need young researchers to enter the field now, so that they will be there to take up the baton and carry forward the research of those who are nearing the end of their careers. But these are the researchers who are going to be disproportionately affected by funding cuts.

Protect research. Come to the rally today, even if it is pouring with rain. Write to your politicians – tell them your story and how medical research has helped you. Blog about it, tweet about it, and above all don’t let up the pressure until the budget is through and research is still in it.

Politics: Save Our Scientists (an opinionated post)

As you may know, I herd medical researchers for a living. Currently, I’m herding cancer researchers (principally leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancers), but in the past I’ve also herded diabetes researchers (both types), arthritis researchers, and researchers into coeliac disease.

One of the things that is a constant in all forms of medical research is the endless quest for funding. This tends to go in cycles – labs will get a nice Program Grant from somewhere and a bunch of fellowships and have enough money to support lots of researchers and do all sorts of useful things – from working out exactly which genes switch on or off a cell’s ability to die when it has been damaged by disease or radiation (which may sound very theoretical but is in fact the basis for a number of cancer therapeutics), to setting up entire clinical trials to test a vaccine that might prevent type 1 diabetes.

And then the grant comes to an end, and we have a problem. We start spending a lot of our research time applying for more grants, which we may or may not get. Less established researchers start applying for fellowships – and also for jobs in other Institutes where someone has a nice, large Program grant which will help support them. If we’re lucky, we get our funding renewed and everything continues. If we are less lucky, the junior scientists don’t get their fellowships, the senior researchers get enough funding for their own salaries and projects but not enough to support postdocs who should, at least in theory, have their own fellowships anyway, and the junior scientists disappear to other institutes or countries or out of science entirely.

The Australian Government is currently looking for places to cut funds in their upcoming budget, and one area they are considering is research funding, including medical research funding. This may be a short-term measure, or a longer-term one. Either way, the effects will be fairly mild in the short-term (which is, I suppose, what makes it appealing), but disastrous in the long term.

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