Challenge: Job security for researchers & the right skills mix to deliver the research Australia needs

A lack of job security for early to mid-career researchers is diminishing Australia’s capacity to conduct world leading research by limiting researchers’ capacity to take risks, innovate and spend time on translation and commercialisation. 54% of researchers at universities and 74% of researchers at MRIs are employed on a contract basis. By far the most common contract term was 12 months. This is far higher than the national average use of contract employment across the economy.1 It is also significantly shorter than the grants provided by funding bodies, which typically have terms of three to five years. This suggests that while research grants are often identified as the culprit, the sector also needs to look at its own employment practices.

This type of fixed term contract employment creates an insecure environment which in turn has an impact on attracting and retaining high calibre recruits. Many researchers’ incomes and careers are dependent on their ability to attract research income such as NHMRC and ARC grants. As employers, research organisations (universities, medical research institutes and others) have to supplement grant funding to be able to pay researchers’ salaries. If the combined funding from grants and other sources is insufficient to fund the research or is exhausted before the research can be completed, the researchers are out of a job. Apart from the loss of income, this directly affects researchers’ careers, which are driven by being able to publish research findings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed differences in the security of employment of different workers and occupations across our economy. Most people would be surprised to learn that for many, a career in health and medical research and innovation is one of the more insecure in our economy. The situation is particularly difficult for women, for whom the rates of insecure employment are highest.2 The research sector and governments must define the workforce the country needs and wants for the future. This means creating a stable environment for early and mid-career researchers, who have been most affected by the financial impact of COVID-19 on universities. Greater clarity of career pathways is essential to help individuals visualise and direct their careers.3 Well defined pathways between academia and industry must be established, encouraged and incentivised to build new industries and foster true innovation. The private sector research and innovation workforce is a critical component of this mix, but a relatively small component in the Australian context. Increasing employment in private sector research organisations and increasing private sector R&D are critical to the long term future of our entire research and innovation workforce.

Australia must plan now for the workforce we need to solve the research challenges of the future. This means creating capacity in a range of required disciplines and areas of expertise, and across the entire pipeline from basic research to translation.

Challenge: Insufficient funding for indirect research costs

Lack of funding from both government and industry for the indirect costs of research conducted in Australia’s universities and medical research institutes is a longstanding problem and far from international best practice. While funding contributes to the direct costs of research, such as paying researchers’ salaries and purchasing necessary equipment and experimental materials, it does not typically cover indirect costs like business development and commercialisation, legal, finance, IT, philanthropy, communications, facility management and core facilities such as imaging, bioinformatics, and biostatistics.

This situation has been exacerbated by the recent emphasis on universities partnering with industry on research projects and reduced revenue of higher education institutions. Teaching revenues from domestic and international students subsidise research expenditure, including covering indirect costs. The reduction in universities’ international teaching revenues caused by COVID-19 has further limited how universities contribute to meeting indirect research costs.

Funding for indirect research costs was raised as an issue during the public consultation on the inaugural five-year strategy and two-year priorities for the MRFF conducted by the MRFF Advisory Board in 2016. While the MRFF Advisory Board subsequently drew attention to the issue of funding for indirect research costs, it did not offer a solution:

A whole-of-government approach is needed to address the issue of research costing to ensure the research sector can continue to thrive. MRFF funding cannot in isolation solve the conundrum that surrounds indirect costs and may with the injection of new funds increase the need for a solution…Collaboration between Government and funded bodies to identify an equitable solution should be prioritised.4

A report by the House Standing Committee on Education recommended that ‘the administration of research block grants be reviewed to provide more timely and adequate support for the indirect costs of research.’5

More recently, Industry, Innovation and Science Australia has identified the issue of indirect research costs as a major issue for all publicly funded research. It has called for action to ensure ‘the costs of conducting research (including researchers, administration and infrastructure) are met by Government or other investors.’6 Action is needed to increase both the amount and transparency of funding for indirect research costs.

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References

1 Research Australia, 2020, The impact of COVID-19 on health and medical researchers

2 Research Australia, 2021, A second survey on the impact of COVID-19 on health and medical researchers

3 See, for example https://mrc.ukri.org/skills-careers/interactive-career-framework/

4 Australian Government, MRFF Advisory Board, 2016, Australian Medical Research and Innovation Strategy 2016-2021, p.7

5 Employment and Training at the request of the Minister for Education. The Committee’s report, tabled on 26 November 2018

6 Australian Government, Industry, Innovation and Science Australia, 2021, Driving effective Government investment in innovation, science and research, Action 3