The Early-Mid Career Funding Crisis in Australian Research

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Its no secrete that Funding for Science in Australia, and around the world (see refs below), is in decline. The result is lower and lower success rates. While we wait for the #NHMRC to release the outcomes for 2015, the word on the street is that we can expect only 10-12% of grants to be successful. In other words, for 90% of Australia’s researchers they are wasting ~3 months of the year for nothing. Consequently as the funding pool decreases, funds naturally flow towards ‘sure bet’ senior researchers. This means that this wasted time is felt the hardest by early- and mid- career researchers (#EMCRs) who cannot compete with the long CVs of their senior peers, and are seen as a potential risky investment. Below is a graph I put together from the 2013 data, which is the most up to date information currently at hand. This trend of funding more senior researchers is clearly seen in the massive increase in average age of the CIA (chief investigator) on project grants over the past 30 years. It used to peak around 40 years, which perfectly aligned with the drop off in fellowships. So there was a very clear and clean transition from Post-Doctoral Funding for those that wanted to transition to a team leader role. However now, the average age has shifted to >50 years. This has created a significant 10-15 year ‘Funding Hole’ for EMCRs, where there are very limited number of fellowships on offer, and little to no chance of securing a project grant. While there has been a lot of talk about this black box, no solution or action has been taken to stem the loss of young, bright and talented researchers being forced out of research. Without action soon, we run the real risk that there will be no succession plan, and Australia’s ability to remain internationally competitive will be set back decades.


2013 NHMRC Data


Funding issues in the US system:
1. Alberts, B., Kirschner, M. W., Tilghman, S. & Varmus, H. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. PNAS 111, 5773–5777 (2014).
2. Cyranoski, D., Gilbert, N., Ledford, H., Nayar, A. & Yahia, M. Education: The PhD factory. Nature 472, 276–279 (2011).
3. Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers et al. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited. (National Academies Press (US), 2014).
4. Powell, K. The future of the postdoc. Nature 520, 144–147 (2015).
5. Alberts, B., Kirschner, M. W., Tilghman, S. & Varmus, H. Opinion: Addressing systemic problems in the biomedical research enterprise. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112, 1912–1913 (2015).


A brief Intro to Greatwall Kinase…The King of Mitosis

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Our favourite protein in the lab is Greatwall kinase. It was first discovered in 2004 to be critical for cell division in fruit flies (1,2) . The trail then went cold for a few years as to its exact function, but in 2009, while I was working as a post-doc in France, I was fortunate enough to be in the lab that uncovered its exciting mode of action. For cells to get into mitosis they must activate a key protein called cyclin dependent kinase 1 (Cdk1). I like to think of this as the accelerator in a car. So to get moving cells push on the gas!
And conversely to get out of mitosis you need to hit the brakes. These brakes are the phosphatases which reverse the action of kinases like Cdk1. That’s great but what is missing from this equation?
Well like any car it’s pretty useless without a driver to co-ordinate the accelerator and brakes. And this is where Greatwall (Gwl for short) comes in. It makes sure that when Cdk1 (accelerator) turns on that the breaks get turned off and vice versa (3,4). Without Gwl the cell gets into a lot of trouble very fast, which you can see in the image below. Here I depleted the human version of Gwl (a gene called MASTL) and watched what happened as cells tried to undergo mitosis (5). As you can see they don’t do a very good job… the result is cells fail to divide correctly, resulting in multiple defects and often cell death.

Gwl Figure

I hope you enjoyed part one of my feature on Gwl, and in part 2 I will into more details about this amazing and exciting new protein.


1. Bettencourt-Dias, M. et al. Genome-wide survey of protein kinases required for cell cycle progression. Nature 432, 980–987 (2004).

2. Yu, J. et al. Greatwall kinase: a nuclear protein required for proper chromosome condensation and mitotic progression in Drosophila. J Cell Biol 164, 487–492 (2004). [Link]

3. Vigneron, S. et al. Greatwall maintains mitosis through regulation of PP2A. EMBO J 28, 2786–2793 (2009). [Link]

4. Lorca, T. et al. Constant regulation of both the MPF amplification loop and the Greatwall-PP2A pathway is required for metaphase II arrest and correct entry into the first embryonic cell cycle. J Cell Sci 123, 2281–2291 (2010). [Link]

5. Burgess, A. et al. Loss of human Greatwall results in G2 arrest and multiple mitotic defects due to deregulation of the cyclin B-Cdc2/PP2A balance. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107, 12564–12569 (2010). [Link]

Redbubble Store

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As a fun way for our lab to share our research with the world, we have created a Redbubble store where you can purchase T-Shirts, iPhone cases, stickers and prints. All at a reasonable price, with any and all profits going back to funding our research.