Awarding young creativity will transform medicine

Last night we gave one of Australia’s most creative young medical researchers a $25,000 prize to help her develop her ideas on how diet could prevent stroke deaths.

It’s a small step towards recognising that the most creative medical research is usually done by researchers early in their career – at a time when it’s hardest for them to secure funding. As a nation we should do more to identify and support our best young researchers. We will be richer for it.

The life-changing and often life-saving results of medical research are becoming increasingly palpable. From the bionic ear to papilloma vaccines they are part of our everyday lives and, to a degree, now taken for granted. But at their inception some of these advances seemed like shots in the dark, looking risky and improbable.

Today our physical health depends on ensuring that discoveries such as these continue, and Australia’s economic wellbeing is much improved when we make and develop these discoveries here.

A spark of creativity differentiates the inspired from the pedestrian in many fields of endeavour. Clarity in problem analysis and a fresh, distinctive approach are often the keys to success. In the fast-moving marketing world the results of such success are quickly evident. In medical research, in contrast, outcomes are measured in decades and financial benefits, if they ever arrive, are similarly delayed.

The system of funding medical research in Australia is constantly evolving in its emphasis, influenced by both financial constraints and pressure from well-intentioned groups wanting to see immediate benefits from funded projects. This favours research projects that are nearer the clinical interface, and whose benefits are more easily attainable. Thus, support primarily goes to projects from more established groups with a shorter horizon.

How then do we encourage the spark of creativity?

Major discoveries are most often made by scientists early in their career, as they acquire their research independence and have the freedom, imagination and energy to produce new ideas and undertake the original experiments that flow from them.

Recognising and fanning these sparks early on is critical. Unappreciated, these unique individuals may drift into survival mode, reaching for lower hanging fruit, leaving for overseas or, worse, leaving medical research altogether.

The two authors of this piece, each having achieved in his professional sphere, have shared many of life’s experiences and adventures. But perhaps the greatest adventure has been recognising the need to encourage creativity.

This idea led to the creation of a unique prize – one which rewards outstanding creativity in young medical researchers working anywhere in Australia.

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize has quickly become widely applauded by senior Australian researchers, and it has boosted the energy of young researchers throughout Australia.

The Prize is now in its third year and its stellar line-up of international adjudicators feel most fortunate to have seen an outstanding and highly original set of applications from across Australia. The Prize conditions specify that applicants must be within eight years of their doctorate, so most applicants are in their early thirties.

In the short three years of the Prize, with nine finalists and over 30 semi-finalists, we believe it has identified a core of Australia’s creative talent and created an alumni of young medical researchers who are not only aware of current issues but are not afraid to attack tomorrow’s problems. The Prize has already launched the careers of two talented scientists researching breast cancer and genetics.

But it’s not enough. We call on Australia’s leaders to consider how to better flame the spark of creativity in all spheres and how to instil pride in thinking un-thought thoughts. And in medical research, to consider how the national research system can better support these young leaders.

Find out more about this year’s prize winner, Dr Connie Wong, and finalists Dr Anne Abbott and Dr William Ritchie.