Dr Alison Rice wrote the following piece on 30 April 2012 in reaction to losing her job as a medical researcher. She wrote the epilogue which follows five years later to demonstrate that PhD skills are invaluable and timeless. Thank you Alison for sharing this professional journey in such a personal way; and for clearly identifying the inherent value of your PhD beyond the bench.
April 30, 2012: I am a senior research scientist specialising in the complications of bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for leukaemia. As a senior research scientist, I am accountable for the strategic direction and goals of my research group, which includes initiating, developing, financing and directing innovative research projects with the aim of improving patient outcome. I have worked in medical research for 27 years. On June 30, 2012, I will stop working as a medical researcher.
I worked in Australia and France, and I have been privileged to work with some of the pioneers of bone marrow transplantation. I published my research in international peer reviewed journals and presented my work at local, national and international conferences. During my career, I supervised 17 post-graduate students (Honours, Masters and PhD) to completion and the majority of these students continue working in medical research. The quality of our work has been recognised with local, national and international nominations and awards. I won competitive peer-reviewed grants from national and international funding agencies to provide salary support for myself and my staff, and to cover the costs of reagents necessary for the research projects. I contributed to the research community by reviewing grants and manuscripts, organising conferences and serving on committees. I spoke at fundraising and awareness functions to explain our research to the community and to tell them how we value their support.
I don’t want to end my research career here, but I have no choice. I did not win a grant in 2011 and as a result my contract is not being renewed. I am sad for myself. I am sad for my staff. I am sad for the example it gives to younger researchers embarking on a research career. In the current economic climate, no grant equates with ‘not good enough’. Yet research is more than getting grants! It is about publishing papers, communicating your results to your peers, it is teaching undergraduates and post-graduate students. It is about telling the general community that their tax dollar is being well spent and that it will improve their lot. It is about participating in the necessary committees to ensure that the research activities are compliant, contributing to a culture of continual learning, sharing experiences and expertise, repeatedly demonstrating that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. It is about leadership. It is about knowing you can’t do everything yourself, how to find and work with your colleagues to take your research to another level, being open to big ideas, knowing what is going on around you, recognising how combining skillsets and different ways of thinking can solve problems.
I will walk away on 30th June 2012 and take all of this knowledge and expertise with me.
Medical research has changed. Research is an expensive activity but investment in it positively impacts the healthcare system. The government has put more money into the system, but research is expensive and a grant does not adequately cover the real and hidden costs of doing cutting-edge research. Disease-based funding bodies, philanthropists, institute funds and community fundraising provide the short fall between government grants and the real cost of research. There are so many deserving areas that need help that we are competing against each other for diminishing pots of money to allow us to continue. The result is that I spend 40% of my time writing grants to fund my research. The success rate of NHMRC grants is 23%.
Am I the only person in this situation? Sadly, it turns out that more and more of my senior experienced colleagues are in the same situation or facing it. Only a small percentage of researchers will have a long term career in academia. The ramifications of this loss of knowledge and expertise may not be felt immediately, but in five years research institutes and universities could be asking where are the new PhD students? The government may be wondering why Australia’s research output slipped or our healthcare system slumped.
So, what am I going to do? I am going to tell the government, the funding bodies and the community what is happening and how Australia’s knowledge economy is being eroded. I am going to make a new career convincing decision-makers and the public of the value of research and how it can transform practice and improve outcome.
Wish me luck.
Since this article was written, the NHMRC success rate has dropped further and the challenges in academia largely remain. On the upside however, the NHMRC has recently undergone a full Structural Review in consultation with the sector. The government has also introduced the National Innovation and Science Agenda, as well as the Medical Research Future Fund, to foster a collaborative culture and to energise the STEM sector.
So, five years later, where is Alison now?
July 31, 2017: I am a Research Development Manager. Who knew such a job existed?! I have come to understand that you cannot do a degree to become skilled in research development; it is not a first career.
The purpose of my role as a Research Development Manager is to identify, generate and manage strategic research opportunities for the University. I use my background as a scientist and my skills in management, education and communication to create and develop synergies between researchers to facilitate engagement with industry partners and government so the researchers can develop and deliver industry relevant research.
To be an effective research development manager, I draw on my inherent and authentic knowledge of what it takes to be successful in the research sector. I am experienced in the art and science of winning and losing grants, I understand the importance of publishing work and telling people about it and I understand the need to tell a great story if you want to get funded. My participation in national grant review panels and formal grant review has given me a keen understanding that grant success requires you to demonstrate the feasibility of your proposal, your leadership in the field and the importance of being able to articulate the impact of research on the field of enquiry.
This part of my career in STEMM has caused me to think about why and how my specialised research experience benefits my current role. I understanding the scientific process – rationale, hypothesis, aims, approach, results, discussion, conclusions and the research drivers. Whilst my background is in leukaemia research as it turns out the process, barriers and drivers are similar in all fields. In fact, in the last 5 years I have provided strategic advice to researchers specialising in renewable energy, law, criminology, policy, social work, history, health and science. This advice has led to more than $20m in successful grants. Sometimes it is really helpful to get some advice from a person skilled in the art but who doesn’t have a specific research agenda and who is not competing against them.
Because I work across the University, I meet a lot of people in diverse areas, hear about their work, develop relationships with them and gain their trust. This broad awareness of institutional research capability and excellence enables me to see the big picture and this in turn helps me see how collaborations can add value and bring new insight to current work. The relationships that I have been able to develop and the strategic advice I provide gives researchers the confidence to consider new ways to advance their work. Thus, while I may no longer do ‘bench research’ I continue to use my ingrained PhD skills to generate knowledge in new ways.
I can say with all honesty that if I had benefited from the skills and services of a Research Development Manager maybe I would still be in research…. But I immensely enjoy the challenges and diversity of what I now do!
About the author:
Dr Alison Rice is a Research Development Manager in the Office of Research at Griffith University. Prior to this appointment, Alison was a Group Leader at the Mater Medical Research Institute and an adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Alison is also Co-President of Women in Technology (WiT), the peak industry body for women in technology and life sciences within Queensland. WiT’s vision is to advance, connect and empower women in technology and life sciences via mentoring, development programs, awards and building networks.