Researchers offered $1.36m rescue package
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Auckland Medical Research Foundation fast-tracks emergency Covid-19 Relief funds
The Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF) is launching a $1.36million emergency Covid-19 Relief Fund, to ensure research projects impacted by the pandemic can recover from months of Auckland’s extended lockdowns.
The pandemic has caused major disruptions for researchers kept out of their laboratories and unable to work for 190 days during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns. They now need additional support to pay salaries to complete their work.
“Auckland Medical Research Foundation is the first medical research funding body that we know of in New Zealand to do this. As the country’s largest independent research funder, we see it as imperative to support the researchers we are investing in, to ensure their work reaches fruition,” Sue Brewster, AMRF executive director, says.
“We have identified 73 projects funded by AMRF that were affected and are now significantly stalled due to Covid.
“One particular group of researchers who have been severely impacted by these lockdowns are those who rely on salaries largely covered by donor-funded research grants contestable research grants. To be awarded this funding, researchers must prove their research is of significant importance and quality, and the AMRF is a major provider of these funds.
“These are a wide range of projects including cancers, neurologic diseases such as Alzheimer's, heart disease, population health and paediatrics. Without additional funds to cover salaries, this work is at risk,” Brewster says.
“This is a crisis for the Auckland research community. While we have been able to give them time-only extensions to try to complete their research, their salaries are also now running out. They are well behind where they should be at in completing their research.”
Eligible researchers can apply for the equivalent of three to six months’ of the grant’s total salary component under the Covid-19 Relief Fund, depending on if their grant was active during the lockdowns.
The grants are either for two year postdoctoral fellowships and projects, or three-year doctoral scholarships and medical research fellowships.
Professor Larry Chamley’s two-year investigation into what triggers preeclampsia was delayed by the inability to get into the laboratory and source up to 50 human placentas for intended to be tested within hours of delivery, while hospitals had strict isolation rules in place.
The Professor of Reproductive Biology and Reproductive Immunology and Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Chamley is the Director of the Hub for Extracellular Investigations (HEVI) at the University of Auckland now needs to find six months’ salary for his highly-skilled technician to carry out the work.
“Our processes take time to set up so for every month that we were out of the lab, there was a month at the beginning and a month at the end where we also lost work,” Chamley says.
“The consequence for the women and babies of New Zealand is that we are no closer to understanding the cause of this life-threatening disease that affects five percent of pregnant young women and their babies.”
Dr Julie Lim is researching strategies that could be used to prevent or delay the onset of cataracts, the leading cause of blindness. She is also funded for two years by the AMRF and had already received a time extension to complete the project after the 2020 lockdown.
The Senior Lecturer in the Molecular Vision Laboratory in the university’s Department of Physiology is “incredibly disappointed” that the momentum of her work was derailed.
“The stop-start nature of these lockdowns has really impacted our research and researchers. We were not able to access donor tissue from the hospital so we have to postpone these until next year. It will directly impact my ability to publish two papers I might get from this study and hinder the career advancement of my junior post-doctoral research fellow and also slow down progress towards the development of anti-cataract therapies for our rapidly ageing and diabetic population.”
The fund has been fast-tracked so that applications will open shortly and it is anticipated the money will be awarded as soon as possible in 2022. It follows the AMRF providing $505,000 for seven Covid-related research projects in 2020.
“We have a built a reputation for being a significant provider of contestable funding and the opportunity for researchers to leverage further investment, often being the catalyst for researchers going on to secure larger grants from the likes of the Health Research Council. If their work faces further delays, they may not be at a stage where they can apply for other monies, stalling projects and careers even further.”