The business of science

Medical research as a business, discussed by HR of HRI

Elissa Dwyer, Director of Human Resources, Heart Research Institute


By Loren Webb

Australia’s Heart Research Institute (HRI) is an internationally recognised medical research institute, performing cardiovascular research with a mission to prevent the spread of cardiovascular disease.

The organisation is comprised of more than 150 collaborators who work together to conduct scientific and clinical research work. With a multitude of staff, scientists, researchers and stakeholders within the organisation, the role of Human Resources is a challenging and multifaceted one.

The business of science

Medical research is a valuable, life changing, and complicated sector. Of course, ‘science’ is also a very broad term, with the rich and varied channels it encapsulates. At the Heart Research Institute, this focuses specifically on the cardiovascular system.

Scientists are at the forefront of conducting innovative research into understanding the causes and complications of the disease, with an honourable vision for a future where no-one suffers needlessly, so it’s important organisations like ours continue to function.

As a not-for-profit, we continuously strive to fundraise, and create usable technology to progress the funding of the organisation to translate into future projects and revolutionary science. As a business, it’s vital to attract as many of the right candidates to the organisation as possible, recruit them, but also retain them.

A niche industry requires a niche approach

So as a business, what are the challenges in recruiting and maintaining a pool of talented staff and researchers when every outcome in science is noteworthy, and everyone’s fighting for the same funding?

One of our main challenges is driving awareness of who we are and what we do. As an industry, we’re quite niche. There are not many people who do cardiovascular research; it’s a small global community, so we have to work hard to ensure people know who we are and our achievements.

HRI isn’t alone in this. There are multiple challenges not-for-profits face that larger corporate entities aren’t impacted by, from driving awareness of their charity, to funding and fundraising, to achieving grant success.

We implement a variety of partnerships and schemes in order to ensure we keep our pool of people as large as possible, including by partnering with likeminded stakeholders such as The University of Sydney, to recruit PhD, Honours and Masters students, fostering a passionate pipeline of talent.

As a non-profit, as well as a niche science field, attracting the right candidates is key for us. But so is incentivising those candidates. We have virtual tours available on our website, as well as lists of equipment, so that potential recruits and students can see our state-of-the-art facilities and know that we will provide them with the best environment. Promotion of our facilities is key, as is identifying the right target audience.

Not-for-profit business research for HRI

Diverse & flexible working

There’s a common perception of the sciences that, as an industry, the field struggles to recruit many female candidates. With twenty-five years’ experience in human resources, I’ve seen my role, and recruitment in general, change considerably. Attracting women to a role isn’t necessarily an issue for HRI, with 60% of our researchers being women. The challenge across all sciences is retaining women, particularly in senior roles.

One of the most frustrating things for any business is seeing good employees leave. Women make up 47%1of the workforce in Australia. With one fifth1of those working part time, it’s important for employers to provide flexible and supportive working environments in order to retain talent.

In the sciences, staff movements can have a real impact on the progress of research, so it’s vital that teams are incentivised, respected, but also welcomed back and fully supported if they do take a career break, or parental leave.

We offer a variety of programmes, including a popular mentoring programme, and a back-to-work programme that eases the adjustment of returning from leave. We find that each of these helps both to inspire ambition, and allow our researchers the support they need. By keeping staff stimulated, as well as supported, we can grow our business outcomes.

Read more: SMEs lead on flexible work to attract and retain top talent 



Elissa Dwyer has been Director of Human Resources at HRI for four years. Before HRI, she held HR roles across a variety of sectors, including technology, telecommunications, and education, before diving into the world of science, a field which she describes as among the most enriching and rewarding.

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