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Medical fundraising efforts hit by Covid-19

Image: Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes

Australia’s medical research is threatened by the pandemic on multiple fronts, industry body says

Fundraising efforts and commercial income in medical research have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report from the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

The AAMRI’s 2020 report on the state of the industry shows that while income from government sources has remained relatively stable, other funding has been hit by the difficulty of running fundraising events. Past experience shows that economic downturns can affect philanthropic income by around 20 per cent.

Jonathan Carapetis (pictured), president of the AAMRI, said that medical research workers were “all acutely aware that our sector, and Australia, will not look the same again for some time to come” after Covid-19.

The report warns of a crisis for early-career and mid-career medical researchers. “Falling philanthropy revenue caused by Covid-19 is likely to lead to reduced opportunities for this critical cohort,” it says.

Female researchers are already showing signs of being worse affected, with a drop in journal submission rates. “This will impact on their track record, which is essential for advancing research careers.”

Difficulty in bringing in international researchers “severely impacts Australia’s participation in the global research community through exchange of talent”, the report says.

Some researchers have had their work “severely interrupted by Covid-19 restrictions [and] are at risk of being less competitive for future funding”.

“While some research is resuming on site, activity is still very limited and varies widely across the country. Disruption caused by Covid-19 has been particularly problematic for clinical trials, cohort studies and Aboriginal health research as it has been impossible to recruit and safely work with participants.”

The report also highlights medical research’s swift response to Covid-19, saying that within two months of the pandemic beginning, Australia had 100 research projects addressing the disease.

The AAMRI represents 57 research centres across Australia, of which 15 are based in universities. The membership covers about 20,000 medical research workers.

The report is a “snapshot” taken every two years. It says that across Australia, the AAMRI’s members were running 1,000 active clinical trials in 2018. It shows that 60 per cent of staff at research centres are engaged in active research, and a further 19 per cent are PhD or other research students. About 22 per cent are visiting staff, students and other research workers. Professional and support staff make up less than a fifth of the workforce.

Three in five research staff are women, but only two in five senior positions are held by women.

In 2018, the association’s membership combined took in around A$2.1 billion from all sources including grants, the Medical Research Future Fund and commercial and fundraising income.

An analysis of the independent, non-university research institutions revealed that around 60 per cent of their income was from non-government sources. Philanthropy and commercial income contributed A$500 million.

In 2018, the cost of running the operations of all research institutes rose by 17 per cent, the report says, creating a concerning and growing “funding gap” in medical research that has to be filled by independent fundraising and commercial activities.

The effects of changes to university funding, such as through the Job-Ready Graduates legislation that is passing through parliament, are unclear so far, the report says.