In conjunction with AAMRI, Professional Scientists Australia has successfully argued that Award coverage of medical researchers in the MRI sector more appropriately sits with the Professional Employees Award than the Higher Education Academic Staff Award because of the scientific basis of the research MRI researchers conduct, and the fact that MRIs have a range of functions that distinguish them from universities.
In its decision, a Full Bench of the Fair Work Commission found that along with the National Employment Standards, the Award provided a fair and relevant minimum safety net of terms and conditions.
While Vice-President Catanzariti, Deputy President Kovavic and Commissioner Johns noted that there were similarities between universities and MRIs, they rejected the NTEU submission that the work of medical research institutes was essentially the same as that of universities. The differences, they found, outweighed the similarities.
The Full Bench noted Professor Doug Hilton’s evidence that the classification descriptions in the Higher Education Award were not appropriate or sufficient to cover the work of MRI researchers with a focus on “scholarly activities”. The classifications, they said, did not capture the “different emphasis of many medical research institutes on the translation of research to impact, including alternative outputs of research, such as involvement in public health activities, impact on policy and health guidelines and publication in grey or non-peer-reviewed publications.” They also noted the principal role of research rather than teaching or conferring degrees and the different funding, governance and regulatory arrangements that distinguished MRIs from universities.
The decision also noted that AAMRI and Professional Scientists Australia disagreed with the NTEU’s argument that researchers in the MRI sector do not require a science degree and held that a degree in a scientific field is required in a majority of medical research roles. The Full Bench found that the evidence “supported a finding that most employees performing professional research duties in MRIs are professional scientists and their roles required the knowledge and skills attained through a science degree.”
Professional Scientists Australia CEO Chris Walton said that it was important not to lose sight of the bigger picture in the case. “Rather than getting bogged down in arguments about Award coverage, we need to remember what makes the MRI sector and MRI researchers so unique. We need the MRI sector’s agility – to research in new fields, to do inter-interdisciplinary research where the real advances over the next 10 years are most likely to be made, and to work with collaborative partners including universities and hospitals.
“The main finding of the McKeon Review in 2012 was that research should be embedded in healthcare to maximise health outcomes – that we needed to integrate research and health services. The core of being an MRI researcher is that research is linked to clinical outcomes – in my experience, that’s what makes these researchers tick – that the work they do actually makes a real difference.
“Alongside that of course is the fact that the MRI sector is ideally placed to encourage greater commercial returns from research and to deliver maximum economic value from taxpayer investment in health and medical research. They are ideally placed to engage with business and other end users of research.”
“Australia must find ways of developing a sustainable research sector and ensuring research excellence on a range of fronts. Research will happen in universities but also in organisations that may be affiliated or co-located with universities but operate in different ways. The MRI sector is a brilliant example of this. There’s huge scope for improvement in the way the MRI sector operates including dealing with the lack of steady work for the talented researchers themselves, but the MRI sector showcases the agility and collaboration that will take health and medical research sector forward over the next decade – and that’s the main game we’re all interested in.”