09/11/2015 - 05:57

Kids Institute head hopes for research grants boosts

09/11/2015 - 05:57

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Jonathan Carapetis has helped WA researchers take a more collaborative approach to securing national funding.

CHANGES: Jonathan Carapetis has led a reform in WA’s health research community. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Jonathan Carapetis has helped WA researchers take a more collaborative approach to securing national funding.    

The head of one of Western Australia’s biggest health and medical research facilities is hoping the next round of national grants will validate the industry-wide reform he helped lead.

Telethon Kids Institute director Jonathan Carapetis has been at the forefront of encouraging greater collaboration within the sector and driving a greater focus on outcomes.

When Professor Carapetis joined the organisation in 2012 from the Northern Territory, he described the dire funding situation in the state as ‘the WA problem’.

By 2012, Professor Carapetis said, the state’s share of funding grants from leading provider, the National Health and Medical Research Council, had dropped from 10 or 11 per cent a decade earlier (in line with WA’s share of the national population) to just 4.5 per cent.

He said this decrease initially attracted a lot of animosity from WA’s health and research community, with much of it directed at perceived injustices.

“There was essentially a refusal to accept this was a Western Australian problem, there were a lot of people saying there’s a bias against Western Australia, people over east don’t understand us ... but that was just nonsense,” Professor Carapetis told Business News.

“The research community managed to turn around the discussion, to get people to accept the problem was that our grant applications just weren’t good enough.”

Professor Carapetis said an incredibly competitive environment (about 15 per cent of NHMRC’s project grants were successful last year) had understandably, but mistakenly, led many WA researchers to operate individually or in silos in an attempt to produce publishable work.

“(Publishing) is important. It’s a measure of quality, of esteem, and in terms of discovery research, it is indeed a measure of how you’re getting knowledge out there,” he said.

“But it’s not the end game. The end game is doing research that leads to improved health.

“The good thing was, out of crisis comes solutions ... it was pretty obvious that what we needed to do was change the whole dialogue.

“We needed to start talking about research being measured according to how it pertains to outcomes, rather than how it contributes to publications.”

To that end, WA’s research community began collaborating, setting up a strategic plan and initiatives.

One of these is the WA Health Translation Network, which includes all of Perth’s five universities, the major medical research institutes, and the state’s Department of Health.

“It’s a wonderful initiative, it’s the way of the future and it really sends a message that the environment is now fantastic for doing research in WA,” Professor Carapetis said.

He said attention was also turning to securing alternative funding models from philanthropists and corporations, in part to hold on to researchers whose jobs were only guaranteed for the life of grants (usually three to five years).

“Right now about only one in nine grants is successful. We’re trying to reduce the number who are very good, (but) who just give up because they can’t keep going,” he said.

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