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How industry can be the life saver for medical research: opinion

Last week, many medical researchers returned to their labs after many of them packed up and left at the start of the COVID-19 isolation back in March. Many scientists turned their attention to studying the virus, and these labs stayed operating, but now it’s time to return to the business of researching other diseases like cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease. 

At a time when being a university researcher has never been more perilous – with reduced funding, widely reported job losses on the horizon, no access to JobKeeper and no sign of a bailout – there’s never been a better time for researchers with translatable discoveries to work with innovative industry partners. Not only will this shore up the survival of our scientific base, it will also help to accelerate economic recovery.

Apart from the issues of restarting a laboratory, researchers were faced with the report – released last week – that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely cause the loss of jobs for 16,000 researchers with 7000 being lost at universities.

The study, led by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering also predicts that this cut to the research workforce will have a major impact on industry, as universities perform 43 per cent of Australia’s applied research work.

This, combined with the decimation of income that has been experienced by universities nationally, due to significantly reduced student numbers amongst other issues, means that being a university researcher at the moment is full of uncertainty.

For academics, it has been compounded by needing to convert all lectures, workshops and practicals to online formats. The uncertainty, increased workloads, funding rates for research grants at a historic low, and universities in financial crisis, makes for a difficult time ahead.

And yet, apart from our frontline health workers, has there been a sector more devoted to dealing with the COVID pandemic? More committed to finding answers that will limit the virus’s impact?

As soon as the first inklings of the potential damage of the new coronavirus became apparent, and long before the disease impacted our lives in this country, Australian biomedical and clinical researchers and many more, were adapting their own research so as to tackle what was looking more dangerous than any epidemic in living memory.  

And it is this flexibility, passion and success that will likely be what will attract funding from another source, industry.

Over the past decade we, at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, have focused on developing strong links with the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, and have partnered with companies such as Janssen, J&J, Roche, GSK, Pfizer and Takeda amongst others.

We have close to 20 potential future therapies in the pipeline. Our researchers have also developed start-ups, all of which have partnered with industry or attracted venture capital support. Our integrated platform technologies such as the Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation attract local small and medium enterprises, such as Trajan and MiniFab and international corporations like CSL, Tecan, MedImmune and others. It is our world class researchers working in the best environment possible that attracts the most innovative industry partners to help drive discoveries to the clinic. 

This is not an altruistic act on behalf of industry, aimed at benefiting humankind. It’s also a bottom-line decision. Last year Universities Australia commissioned a report showing that when companies tap into the expertise of universities and their researchers, it boosts not only the firm’s own bottom line – but also that of national economies. The report found that formal collaborations between Australian businesses and universities generate $10.6 billion a year in revenue directly for the firms who partner with universities.

By the time that flows through the economy, these collaborations are contributing $19.4 billion a year to Australia’s income, creating an estimated extra 30,000 full-time Australian jobs across the country, in addition to the 120,000 jobs directly supported by our university sector.

Now it would be naïve to assume that COVID has not also impacted the global pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, but a common foe and hard times will drive the best people together to find strength and opportunity in collaborative partnership.

Industry and VC-funded research is essential to bring fundamental discoveries to market. Bringing purpose and impact to government funded discovery research creates jobs, increases critical mass and drives the economy. This is good for everyone – and it may just help some of our incredibly talented researchers get through a very challenging time.

Professor John Carroll is director of the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University.

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