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Health science faculties fear research cuts

Health science faculties have strong reputations for meeting the demand for health care professionals with high-quality graduates. Some are worried that research funding cuts might make meeting that demand more difficult, writes Natasha Egan.

At a time when health care needs are growing health science faculties across the country are concerned that the threatened cuts to the medical research budget could make meeting the demands of training the next generation of Australia’s medical professionals more difficult.

They are not only concerned about the researchers who might lose their jobs but also the follow on effects on students who might be working with them or otherwise benefitting from their research.
University of Adelaide’s Associate Dean Learning and Teaching from the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Maree O’Keefe, said PhD and honours programs and research higher degrees would be directly hit if the research funding cuts went ahead.

“You need to have a sufficient number of supervisors to be able to offer the places that would meet the demand of the student cohorts,” she said.

“Maintaining medical research funding and therefore research activity is extremely important for our students because decreased research activity actually would affect student learning in a number of ways.”

The University of Adelaide offers over 60 health science programs covering mostly traditional areas such as dental, nursing, public health and pharmacology. This includes seven undergraduate degrees with options for 18 different honours degrees, 30 postgraduate courses by course work and eight programs by research.

O’Keefe identified three key areas where students would suffer as a result of reduced research.
The first is the need for students to learn the most up-to-date information on medical diagnosis and treatment. She said their teaching staff were also active researchers and this meant they were able to bring the most up-to-date information to their teaching.

“And so what students are learning is the appropriate information about treating heart attacks or diabetes or diagnosing and treating cancer.

“They’re not learning information that is out of date. It’s very important that this close connection be maintained between the researchers and the teacher,” O’Keefe said.

She also highlighted the need for students to learn how to conduct research and how to assess the quality of research adding that in health care, it was very important that practice was evidenced based.

“Because if there’s a reduction in the number of researchers there are fewer opportunities for students to work with them to see how research is done, high quality research is done.”
She said it was important to give students the opportunity to have a really high quality learning experience and there needed to be enough researchers so that experience wouldn’t be compromised.

A further aspect of reduced research budgets that would have a direct effect on students is on their subsequent career plans according to O’Keefe.

“Fewer research staff means that there are fewer honours supervisors, fewer PhD supervisors and there are fewer labs.

“So that the whole next generation of high quality medical and health care professionals are at risk because there’s not the training put in place because it’s very much, you learn to be a researcher by working with established researchers and that requires funding.”

Acting Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Queensland, Associate Professor Greg Monteith, echoed O’Keefe’s fears about the next generation of researchers.

He said that if the cuts did go ahead, high quality medical research would not be funded and a lot of very good young researchers would head overseas and PhD students might follow.

“And there won’t be as much research funding to support PhDs who want to be trained in medical research.

“Therefore there won’t be that capacity to train that next generation of researchers that are really needed in order for Australia to keep pace with the rest of the world in medical research,” Monteith said.

The University of Queensland boasts a wide variety of courses in their health sciences faculty with over 80 programs covering all aspects related to health.

There are over 20 options for undergraduate and honours degrees ranging from traditions such as nursing and midwifery to degrees in exercise and sports sciences.

The post graduate specialisations are more extensive and include mental health, public health and biostatistics. There are 15 Graduate Certificate programs, eight choices of Graduate Diplomas, 31 different masters programs and three Doctorate programs.

In the research programs there are two higher doctorate programs in dental science and medicine and two research higher degrees.

Monteith said a significant number of their staff both taught and did research. He added that the teaching included undergraduate teaching, honours teaching that was researched based and PhD student teaching which was also research based.

“In order to train the next generation of medical researchers that are thinking about doing a PhD, it’s very important that we have medical research funding in order for them to complete their research,” he said.

Monteith highlighted that the medical research being done in Australia was very wide and ranged from test-tube research to identifying ways of improving the way nurse parishioners did their job to.
Monteith said: “It will have ramifications across a wide variety of areas that affects the health of Australians. High quality research helps high quality health care delivery.”

O’Keefe said there was a strong and continuing demand for health professionals to meet the health care needs of Australia.

“The increasing rates of chronic illness, the costs of health care that need to be managed and there is a great need for health professionals in the rural area.”

“They are just growing at a rate that everybody is struggling to keep up with,” she said.

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