Australian Medical Scientists Protest Hefty Budget Cuts

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Chanting "cures not cuts," some 7000 medical researchers took to the streets in five Australian cities this week to protest a steep cut—about 20% per year—to medical research spending anticipated in the federal government's 2011 budget, set for release next month.

"I am gravely concerned, and I urge the government to think twice about this. This would have potentially long-lasting and devastating effects on Australia's medical research future," Suzanne Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

The federal government is struggling to balance its budget after disastrous floods and a cyclone earlier this year and major commitments such as a $45 billion (AUD $43 billion) national broadband network. But after Cabinet ministers leaked news of plans to slash $419 million (AUD $400 million) over the next 3 years from the $746 million (AUD $710 million) it doles out each year through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), scientists fought back with a social media campaign. Defending the cuts, health minister Nicola Roxon this week told local journalists that the government is scrutinizing every dollar spent on health: "Research is not exempt from that examination," she said.

Researchers hope to persuade the government that the relatively small sum it would save by savaging medical research would derail the careers of young researchers, fuel a new brain drain, and damage the country's biotech industry. Like most medical researchers, University of Sydney malaria and bacterial meningitis researcher Nicholas Hunt says his "lifeblood" is 3-year NHMRC project grants. Although he has a tenured position, losing grant support would force him to close his lab and leave his two postdocs without jobs. His four Ph.D. students, including two from Malaysia who each will pay about $110,000 to earn degrees in Australia, would be unable to complete their training in his lab. "It will make countries wonder about sending research students to Australia," Hunt says.

Deep cuts could spark an exodus of talent. Statistical geneticist Peter Visscher was lured to Queensland Institute of Medical Research from a tenured position at the University of Edinburgh. "I came with the confidence that here's a state and a country that believes in research," he says. If the government follows through with its plan, "there is a real risk some researchers will leave," Visscher says. "Singapore will probably snap up my best postdocs, and they do all the important work. Once good people are gone, they're likely gone for good."

The cuts would be a reversal of fortune for medical researchers. Australian medical research had been enjoying a renaissance after a 2000 review that probed, among other things, why the nation had struggled to retain medical researchers and had experienced limited success in building a biotech industry. The findings prompted the creation of fellowships to lure top-flight researchers and program grants to spur collaborations between researchers in academia and industry. The 2000 review "dragged us up from where we were 12 to 14 years ago," says Doug Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research here. "It's time for another road map for medical research." But he says researchers need a stable 2-year funding period to articulate that plan. Researchers hope to meet with government officials soon to resolve the crisis.