Looking back – how the history of ASMR can help us understand the research landscape of today

So what can the Australian Society for Medical Research’s (ASMR) past tell us about where health and medical research is now, and where we are headed? First, it gives us a view of the many factors and events that have shaped ASMR. Secondly it gives us a point in time to measure what has changed (or not) in the landscape that ASMR operates in today. Thirdly reflection on these things may have something to say about how we (ASMR) should approach the future.

So what was ASMR like back in the early nineties? ASMR had grown from its roots as a Society formed by clinicians, out of concern that they lacked a forum where medical research, the foundation on which their profession was built, could be discussed, fostered and promoted. By the late ‘80s the Society’s advocacy role for research had grown in prominence and was focused largely on the political process, with a particular focus on Federal funding for research through the NHMRC. Several Past Presidents of ASMR went on to become key figures in the development of the NHMRC in future years. The role of State branches was largely focused on promotion of the benefits of local medical research through a nationally coordinated Medical Research Week. There was little recognition in those days of the link between federally funded research and the delivery of outcomes in health systems managed by State Governments. The key feature of the landscape in the late eighties, was that ASMR was virtually a lone voice in independent broad advocacy for the benefits of research. By the end of the nineties, this had changed forever with the establishment of organisations such as Research Australia, and focused advocacy groups such as the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

The scientific landscape of those days was dominated by the impact of gene cloning technology on medical research, a movement so powerful that it would change the names of long established Societies such as the Australian Biochemistry Society but more importantly would produce immediate benefits for health care with the development of safer and cheaper medicines such as insulin. Optimism that these new technologies would rapidly lead to cures for intractable diseases was high globally and the need for Australia to keep up with developments and to be at the forefront of these developments was palpable. It was in this landscape that ASMR was able to successfully advocate for a doubling of Federal funding for health and medical research. The then Federal Government commissioned the Wills review into medical research and the budget doubling was delivered by successive budgets in the late nineties and early 2000’s.

The ASMR strategies at this time were global in their scope, leveraging the success of US researchers in doubling the NIH budget by enlisting the aid of Prof. Ralph Bradshaw, a key figure in US advocacy to tour Australia. National strategies revolved around documenting the benefits of medical research to government, documenting the broad-based public support for medical research and expanding the membership base of ASMR through it’s affiliate member programs. In addition ASMR’s public advocacy for medical research was promoted nationally through the institution of the ASMR Medalist tour, a program whereby prominent researchers, the first of whom was our own 1996 Nobel Laureate Prof. Peter Doherty would tour Australia giving public lectures and promoting the benefits of research. One of the early benefits of the increase in research funding was in attracting Prof. Doherty back to Australia to contribute to the Australian research scene. Through these efforts and the efforts of subsequent Boards, ASMR has an unparalleled track record of success in its recent history in building a vibrant health and medical research sector in Australia.

So what about the landscape we find ourselves operating in today? For people like me the nineties does not seem that long ago, but the ASMR of today operates in such a radically different landscape compared to those times, in practical terms those times are another world. Real progress has been made in ASMR’s promotion work, to the point where the Society has been joined by many other advocacy groups, each promoting research outcomes and contributing to the advocacy landscape. What is more remarkable is that the idea of evidenced-based medicine is taking root at every level of health service provision, seeing a dramatic expansion in areas such as health services research and genuine targeted engagement in the research enterprise by State Governments. ASMR’s strength in the advocacy area remains. That is, the Society is populated by working scientists dealing with issues through the eyes of working scientists.

Today’s scientific landscape is completely different now to back then. What took me three years to achieve to gain a PhD in the early eighties using now obsolete technology is achievable today in minutes. The age of big data in medical research is with us as technologies expand the capacity for data acquisition and analysis. The digital age has completely changed our timely access to information, fundamentally altering the way we work. Dr Google is a constant and immediate collaborator. These developments have highlighted the need for a much broader workforce with deep knowledge in a wider range of subjects than was necessary in the past and the opportunities provided by digital technologies for the creation of research networks is unparalleled in history. ASMR’s involvement in how these issues affect the progress of health and medical research remain essential to our success in meeting the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities this landscape provides.

The great optimism that disease cures will come is slow to be fulfilled for major killers such as cancer, with gains being incremental. This erroneous perception of lack of major success, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of research, has made it easy for competing interests to argue that the hard fought gains made by ASMR and others in the last two decades have shown limited success and for our hard-working politicians to grow weary of yet another request for more funds, in an environment dominated by the expenditure problem vs revenue problem debate. The realisation that research is never going to be over, even when death from cancer is a thing of the past, challenges the models that we have for funding it and challenges the resolve of all the stakeholders in the enterprise. The advocacy role of ASMR becomes even more necessary in these circumstances. It is only by cleverly and bravely engaging with our community that the purpose and importance of what we do will remain clear and the justification for continued support for it will be obvious.

While the landscape in which we operate is changing with astonishing speed, the underlying response to these changes remains fairly constant. The advocacy role, like the need for research, is never over. ASMR has a unique and abiding role in this that needs to be continually supported by our own community. ASMR has and will continue to have the adaptive capacity to make the message fit the landscape we see in front of us, which is the key to the Society’s past success and will be the key to it’s undoubted future success.

 

Kieran

Associate Professor Kieran Scott

About the author: Kieran Scott has been a member of ASMR for about 25 years, serving on the NSW committee in the early nineties and as a Director from 1993, culminating in his presidency in 1997. His time was particularly pivotal in the history of ASMR as it led to a broadening of the membership base of the Society to include stakeholder organisations, and broader engagement with the political process that influences government support for health and medical research. These developments were part of a strategy that led to the landmark doubling of the NHMRC budget in the closing years of the 20th century, an outcome for which ASMR is widely acknowledged as playing a major role. Kieran is currently an Associate Professor in Oncology with Western Sydney University.

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Escalating Healthcare Costs: Why Rely on Band-aids When You Can Avoid the Wound?

The following is a summary of the presentation given by ASMR President, Dr Sarah Meachem, at Gala Dinners held around the country during ASMR Medical Research Week® 2016.

ASMR has been representing the whole of Australia’s health and medical research (HMR) sector for 55 years. The Society has never wavered from its core values – core values that have never been more important than they are today. Excellence, integrity and commitment enabling a healthier Australia, a healthier world, and a healthier you. ASMR tells it how it is, and we substantiate what we say with evidence. ASMR has a 10 vision and this blog describes briefly about where we are now, and how we can get to where we need to be.

Where we are at?
Australia faces unprecedented health and economic challenges over the next 50 years. Our sector can assist in mitigating the burden of disease and its associated costs.
Econometric data provide compelling evidence that many billions of dollars have been saved to date by the HMR sector. Australia has been the beneficiary of commercialisation of quality ideas that have emerged from curiosity driven research (e.g. the Cochlear implant, the human Papilloma Virus vaccine, the first continuous positive airway pressure machine, to name a few). Investment into HMR provides exceptional value to the community in well-being gains and economic prosperity.
At the heart of this success is the world class Australian HMR sector, our highly skilled and valuable pool of HMR scientists. These people have an appetite for knowledge and a desire to making the world a better place. It takes them decades of inspiration and perspiration to become who they are and what they do.
The largest single funder of HMR is the Australian Government. Health and prosperity are central to the goals held by all major political parties. Currently, the Commonwealth Government invests about $800M annually through Australia’s major public funder of HMR, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and its Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA). This is 0.6% of the total health spend. The last significant injection of money was in 2007, and prior to that 1999. In this setting, the momentum of discovery is constantly interrupted and opportunities are lost.

Right now the sector faces a variety of serious challenges; the workforce is being depleted and with it its benefits.
Over the last 5 years, the MREA has been under considerable pressure to maintain it capacity to sustain research. Funded rates are at an historic low. The situation is critical! My intention is not to disempower you. On the contrary, we need to understand the problem before we can fix it. Over the past 5 years, investment into the MREA has remained static. It has not kept pace with the rising costs of research or with the increasing health challenges that this country faces.
People ask, “How many people have lost their jobs?” A simple question, but difficult to answer, as we don’t have a registry of health and medical researchers, like the doctors registry.

What do we know?
• one grant scheme funded from the NHMRC MREA, the project grant scheme, over the last 3 years, there has been a decline of nearly 700 FTE positions,
• in terms of the Fellowship scheme there has a been 20% decrease in the number of awards being given. This represents not only a loss of highly qualified, talented and motivated individuals in the short-term, but also a devastating loss of leaders necessary to train and develop the next generation of intellectual capital.
• In a recent survey by ASMR late in 2015, more than 20% of respondents were unsure whether they had employment in 2016.
There are some of the numbers that reflect what probably you already. Where is the tipping point? If we continue to lose people, we lose a lot of opportunities to improve health. Not only that, economically speaking, replacing lost intellectual capital is costly to the country.

Where to next?
We need a short term and long term strategy, in order to create a world-leading health care system.
ASMR advocates for an immediate stabilisation of the HMR workforce by investing new money, $300M, into the MREA. This will maintain capacity and drive the momentum of research, safeguarding government’s investment. Investing in the MREA is critically important, because it supports our best and brightest. It would help to mitigate the loss of past and future investment (the latter referring to the Medical Research Future Fund [MRFF] and the National Science and Innovation Agenda [NISA]). The MREA is the bedrock of curiosity driven research. This funding feeds the pipeline of research to translation, and health products to market. The MRFF and NISA can’t replace the MREA. These new initiatives rely on the solid foundations of the MREA. Erode the foundations and the integrity of future investment will falter. That’s why the MREA is important, and why ASMR wants to safeguard it.

Some people have asked, “Is it a good time to ask for money?” But what happens if we don’t? The risk is too great!
Injection of $300M in the MREA is an important first step into a long term strategy to generate a sustainable health and medical research ecosystem to achieve expenditure of 3% of the Health budget by 2025.

What are the power and possibilities of this investment?
• Imagine a HMR sector that improves the health of all Australians, living longer and healthier lives, and mitigating health care costs.
• Imagine a HMR sector that is supported by a sustainable eco-system, underpinned by an evidence-based predictable investment strategy, a system which will allow the scientific endeavour to flourish.
• Imagine a fully integrated, equitable, agile and affordable health care system, with HMR right at the heart of it

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Much ado about mentoring

A proud and enduring initiative I introduced during my first term as ASMR President in 2009 was the ASMR Career Development Mentoring Program. I developed and implemented this scheme in response to alarming survey responses from one of our Professional Development events, which revealed that more than one third of delegates did not have a career development mentor. Since its inception, the Mentoring Program has assisted the career development of many of the country’s leading researchers and rising stars.

No doubt you’ve all had some experience with mentoring, or at least had the concept described to you. But few people really understand what constitutes good mentoring! Take some time to read over the guidelines for the ASMR Career Development Mentoring Program to find out a bit more (hyperlink at the end of this blog).

Most universities and medical research institutes run their own in-house mentoring programs. Such programs can be really helpful, and I encourage you to utilise this if your oranisation offers it. So why apply to the ASMR Mentoring Program as well?

First off the bat – it’s important to have several mentors in your professional life – several points of view. Having someone who can give you advice about navigating a successful path within the context of your organisation is essential. But so is having someone who can offer you a different perspective on how to sell yourself, position yourself and test yourself beyond your own workplace – beyond what you already know. Similarly, while it’s necessary to have a mentor from within your own field, it’s just as important to have a mentor from a different discipline. They can offer you insights and critical appraisal of your plans and proposals and provide (suggest) opportunities were in your blind spot.

ASMR has invited mentors to participate in the program based on track record and skills/traits such as effective communication, positive relationships developed in a professional manner, tact, patience and diplomacy, good organisational skills and high level of commitment and enthusiasm to the program. You will be amazed at the calibre of scientists who have put their hand up to be mentors in this Program … just for the joy of helping early-mid career researchers reach their career objectives.

Having a number of key mentors to help you articulate your desired career trajectory, and critically assess your plan for getting there, is essential in today’s competitive research environment. If you meet the criteria outlined below, do yourself a favour and apply to join the ASMR Career Development Mentor Program. You’ll wish you’d done it years ago! And guess what? It’s free.

Best wishes

Sarah Meachem, PhD
ASMR President

Sarah_headshot

The ASMR Career Development Mentor Program is offered to current ASMR Members who are early-mid career (up to approximately 12 years post-doc).  To find out more, please  click here.

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ASMR Early Career Development Day: Giving Early Career Researchers an Edge

Last month, over 60 early career researchers (ECRs) from the greater Sydney area came together at the Lowy Cancer Research Centre, UNSW, for the Australian Society for Medical Research’s Early Career Development (ECD) Day. The aim of the event was best summed up by introductory speaker and session Chair, Dr Luke Hesson, as giving early career researchers every edge to do what they love. 

The full day event showcased an impressive panel of inspiring speakers giving valuable advice on how to go forward following the years of formal study. Experts from many areas of the medical research sector were represented, including academia, pharmaceuticals, business, industry, government, and more.

The talks kicked off in the theme of academia and full time jobs in medical research, with advice from Dr Annemiek Beverdam on how to establish your own lab. In particular, Dr Beverdam explained the importance of creating a global network by working overseas early in a research career, and how and when to acquire independent funding.

Prof Chris Semsarian then discussed the usefulness of Twitter for research – “the best and easiest way to spread your research around the globe” (we noticed a big influx of ECRs following the ASMR Twitter handle @TheASMR1 after this talk!). Prof Semsarian also discussed the importance of mentoring – check out his recent and famous “women”toring article published in Women in Science Australia.

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Professor Chris Semsarian talking to ECRs about the importance of mentoring.

The session was followed by Professor Maria Kavallaris, with the best advice on how to attract funding, and the way to build up your CV to make this possible! A/Prof Joanne Lind then took over to discuss the pathway to an academic teaching career, and wise words, “you need experience to get experience”.

https://twitter.com/ruthpidsley/status/668985460807479297

While many ECRs are still keen on pursing a career in academia, others are accepting that there are limited positions in this field. There was therefore a large interest in hearing about other possible careers in science. This was portion of the day was therefore well represented.

Subsequent talks included Dr Christian Toouli from Bio-Link Australia on partnering basic research with commercializationDr Farhad Shafiei from Sigma on ARC linkage grants and a perspective on working in industry, and Ben Wright from ATP Innovations discussing science as a business and business as a science.

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Lunchtime was no time for resting, with meet-and-greet sessions organised for ECRs to meet and have lunch with the speakers, and ask all their questions.  

The afternoon session included more speakers from science industry, including pharmaceuticals (Dr Peter Tobin from Novartis) and research and development from a bioengineering perspective (Dr Sharon Sagnella). We then heard from Dr Martihn Bijker (From SCIENCE to PHARMA/Merck Serono) who trains researchers to become medical science liaisons – his best advice, “You need a good plan B to go full throttle on plan A!”

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Dr Peter Tobin, senior medical advisor, talking about what it’s like to work in pharmaceuticals

The next talk was particularly interesting for many of us, with Leigh Morrison & Angela Barclay from PMP Connect discussing pharmaceutical and science recruitment. These ladies are the specialized science version of SEEK, which many of us did not know exist! You tell them what type of job you are looking for, and they will find relevant positions and help you to apply.

The day ended with talks about government and non-lab-based positions. Dr Cherul Lim from the National Measurement Institute shared her perspective on working in government, while Dr Pearly Harumal from The University of Sydney talked about what its like to be a Grants Manager.

All in all, the ECD day was a great success, especially thanks to all our great speakers. We look forward to welcoming return and new ECRs to these workshops in the years to come.

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Ben Wright, Ben Write, Director of Commercial Development at ATP Innovations, with ECRs at the lunch time round table session.

Note:  Thanks to our guest blogger, Dr Natalie Matosin, for this great piece!

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Natalie Matosin, PhD

 

 

 

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Be Part of the Healing

Almost non-existent 30 years ago, the rate of suicide and self harm amongst the First Australians has reached crisis levels, particularly in remote communities and amongst the youth. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states for young Aboriginal men, the rate is four times higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts, whilst for young Aboriginal women the rate is five times higher. In some remote communities in the Kimberley, spates of suicide have reached 100 times the national suicide average.

Families are reeling in grief, and communities are overwhelmed with what many are calling “an epidemic of self harm”. Something is desperately wrong and urgent action is needed to restore the balance of life in Aboriginal communities.

Suicide is an act of desperation, driven by a combination of life factors that negatively impact on that person’s social and emotional wellbeing. A number of ‘risk’ and ‘protective’ factors have been identified by community leaders, Elders and those working closely with Indigenous communities in Australia to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous people in Australia.

To address these factors, a holistic and community driven approach is needed, which Elders and community leaders are calling to lead, in order to reconnect their youth to community, family and culture, thereby restoring harmony in their communities.

At the Australian Society for Medical Research Indigenous Health Forum on Monday 16th November at Tandanya Cultural Institute, Yuin Elder Max Dulumunmun Harrison will talk about the ‘risk’ and ‘protective’ factors identified in an Elders-driven Report into preventing self harm and indigenous suicide.

Uncle Max

Max Dulumunmun Harrison (Uncle Max) is the Project Director of The Culture Is Life campaign. This has created a platform for Indigenous Elders and community leaders to influence public awareness, policy-making and service provision around Indigenous suicide prevention to support the Indigenous-held position that culture and connection to country are vital foundations for social and emotional wellbeing in Indigenous communities.

http://yidakiyulugi.com/uncle-max-harrison/

http://www.cultureislife.org/

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ASMR Indigenous Health Forum: Shining a Light on Mental Health

The Australian Society for Medical Research Indigenous Health Public Forum is a community based event, for people who are interested in issues that influence the social and emotional wellbeing (including mental health) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The evening is an opportunity to hear presentations and discuss a range of important issues with expert indigenous researchers, advocates and community members. The presenters include:

  • Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison is a Yuin elder from Narooma, who founded Culture is Life. This is an Indigenous Elders’ led campaign supporting and promoting community driven solutions to end Indigenous self harm and youth suicide, such as reconnecting youth to community, family and culture, to restore harmony, social and emotional wellbeing.
  • Dr Maree Toombs is an indigenous woman who researches community based indigenous mental health programs, including suicide prevention, at the University of Queensland. Her work aims to improve the diagnosis of mental illness in Indigenous Australians by identifying a way to quantify the burden of mental illness among communities, in order to improve care specific to Indigenous Australians.
  • Dr Marshall Watson is a descent of the Noongar peopleis and having completed his advanced training in both child and adolescent and forensic psychiatry, is a fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. His area of interest is juvenile offending in the context of complex trauma.
  • Professor Charlotte deCrespigny works at The University of Adelaide School of Nursing. She has worked with Aboriginal communities and services for over 20 years in the drug and alcohol field as a clinician, educator and researcher. A major interest for Charlotte has been to improve practice, education and research, with a strong link to community.

The event will be chaired by Gerry Georgatos, co-editor of The Stringer Independent News, a life-long human rights and social justice campaigner, who is actively involved in suicide prevention research.

There will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions and have active discussions with this assembled panel and with other members of the community.  Hope to see you there!

Dr Antonia Pritchard
Director, Indigenous Health and Community Advocacy

Antonia

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NSC 2015 – The AWT Edwards Memorial Oration

I was very pleased to be invited to give the AWT Edwards Memorial Oration at this year’s ASMR National Scientific Conference (NSC) – Bugs, Bowels and Beyond. The AWT Edwards Memorial Oration is named after the 1966 ASMR President, Tony Edwards, who passed away during his Presidency. I am honoured to have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of previous Edwards Orators including Professors Fiona Wood and Peter Doherty, and Sir Gustav Nossal.

As a clinician, I became interested in the role that the nervous system may play in unexplained gut disorders – a research field referred to as neurogastroenterology. This interest has translated into a programme of research into difficult to study gut diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia (severe indigestion) and gastroparesis (slow stomach emptying). For many years these diseases were considered psychosomatic, but work carried out within my lab suggests that there may be a genetic basis. My group has identified a new genetic form of irritable bowel syndrome and the first ever gene for functional dyspepsia. We have identified a new disease in adults, duodenal eosinophilia, that likely explains a large group of patients with previously unexplained dyspepsia. We have also pioneered research into the role of H. pylori in dyspepsia, which has led to transformations in clinical practice.

I look forward to sharing more about my journey into this exciting field of research work when I present at NSC2015.
I look forward to seeing you there.

Laureate Professor Nick Talley

Nick Talley

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