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ICHR driven by funds and talent

The Telethon Institute for Child Health Research has achieved significant research milestones, but if it is to continue to be a focal point for child research it needs to be able to grow its funding capacity, as Julie-anne Sprague reports.

THE Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (ICHR) may be the darling of the research world but it remains vulnerable to funding pressures despite its successes.

Apart from 35 administration staff and its director, Professor Fiona Stanley, 254 researchers are employed only for the life of each research grant; that is, they do not have a secured tenure.

However, the ICHR attracts interest from researchers across the globe and has made significant in-roads into childhood diseases such as asthma, birth defects and cancer.

Professor Stanley’s research achievements were formally recognised when she was named Australian of the Year.

She is a visionary leader and has been instrumental in building the ICHR into a world-class research facility.

The institute was born out of Professor Stanley’s frustration with research practices of the 1980s. She has since engineered the ICHR into a unique multi-disciplinary team that aims to prevent, rather than cure, diseases.

“Single disciplines weren’t really going to solve the problems in young people. Disease in children is very complex,” Professor Stanley said.

“We had no money but we had a vision. People thought we were mad. We had a building from the government [an old section of Princess Margaret Hospital for Children] and got initial money from the government, Telethon, and the Lotteries Commission and we grew the research.

“I said to the researchers ‘this is what we are doing, we want to prevent disease rather than cure them, you have to bring your own money with you’. It’s the same situation today. No-one comes unless they can bring the money with them.”

The inability to provide secured tenures is an issue that has plagued the institute since its inception in 1990.

ICHR researchers are reliant on grant income to sustain their salaries, which makes it difficult for the institute to attract research talent. At the same time, however, it enhances the ICHR’s reputation in the global research community, according to chief financial officer Bruce McHarrie.

“One of the issues we have is secure tenure to get money to secure them on an ongoing basis,” Mr McHarrie said.

“That is a big issue for us that we can’t offer people secured funding.”

However, winning government grants has helped the institute be-come a recognised leader in its research fields.

“But on the one hand, while we can’t totally rely on government funding we have a fair amount of it, which gives us a tick in the box of excellence,” Mr McHarrie said.

State and federal government grants account for 50 per cent of the institute’s research income.

The ICHR attracts commercial income, overseas grants, spin-off companies and grants obtained from other foundations and charities. 

Its major anxiety, however, is that of infrastructure income – the money required to pay the lighting bills, purchase equipment to conduct research, to facilitate accounting and finance operations and to purchase office equipment.

While winning major grants gives the institute access to the Medical and Health Research Infrastructure Fund – 30 per cent of its infrastructure funding – it has had to align itself with commercial partners, collaborate with other institutes, obtain government work, and undertake significant fund-raising activities.

“We have research capability where we enter into collaborations with companies to research for them but we only do commercial R&D in areas that are related to the areas of research we are already doing,” Mr McHarrie said.

Ms Stanley and her team identified almost a decade ago that if the institute were to survive it would need to boost earnings to supplement infrastructure. The need for a monetary safety net also was recognised.

“In 1994-1995 Fiona and the team went on a fundraising campaign and Telethon was a major supporter. The result was an $11 million capital fund. The purpose of that fund is to be our backstop. It’s security,” Mr McHarrie said. 

“Research income and infra-structure are not designed to grow the institute, they are designed to do the day-to-day research.

“It is a vitally important lifeline and we generate income with it to implement strategies.

“We can also say to our major breadwinners that, in the event that they lose their funding, we can give them a period of time where their salary remains secure until they can obtain funding.

“We have renewed the campaign for the capital fund. We want to get $30 million over five years. We’ve got $11 million of that. That income will help us grow our capacity to attract new talent.”

Professor Stanley believes the future success of the institute lies in securing that talent.

“We are now at a crucial stage, an exciting stage,” she said.

“We are growing rapidly, we have a fabulous building, but we have an increasing need for equipment and infrastructure support.

“We don’t want to stand still. If we don’t recruit the next bright mind it slips away.”

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