Medical Research Future Fund akin to 21st Century Snowy Mountains Scheme

Medical Research Future Fund akin to 21st Century Snowy Mountains Scheme

14th July, 2014

The new Australian Senate faces a number of important votes in coming weeks, but none more so than the vote to create the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). We contend that the MRFF is a profoundly important and farsighted nation-building initiative, and call on all senators to consider the implications for every Australian in making this new fund a reality.

Australia is a world leader in health and medical research (H&MR). The discoveries made in Australia have been well documented. They include a vaccine for cervical cancer, the bionic ear and a cure for most peptic ulcers. However, these well-known and celebrated achievements are themselves only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of other Australian discoveries have led to improvements in therapies, drugs, clinical practice and health behaviours that have transformed the world’s health. They are fundamental to Australians enjoying one of the highest life expectancies on earth.

The authors of this article are mainly from Australian business, so it may seem counterintuitive that we support research funded from the public purse. The reality is that H&MR requires substantial investment that is not driven by profit. Early-stage discovery work is often too premature for commercial investment and would not occur if left to the private sector. Further, much valuable medical research does not lead to marketable discoveries. Just one example is the Australian research that established the link between stomach sleeping and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; it is impossible to calculate the number of lives saved from this important discovery, but by its nature it could never result in commercial success.

This is not to say that medical research never leads to commercial success – quite the opposite. Publicly-funded medical research has supported some of Australia’s most successful companies. For example, Cochlear, CSL and Resmed have all benefited from publicly-funded medical research. Taxes they pay from commercial development of this research have subsequently enriched all Australians, and will continue to do so. H&MR contributes to more than $4 billion in annual exports and employs tens of thousands.

It is critical that Australia has a home-grown capacity to address the health priorities that are relevant to our country, and just as importantly take advantage of innovations from elsewhere. There are no countries in the world that have good health outcomes without strong medical research underpinning their healthcare.

However, the fact is that Australian medical research expenditure trails many other western nations. While the quality of our medical research excels, ultimately we will fall behind if the funding gap is not addressed. The US Government, through the National Institutes of Health, spends approximately $100 per capita each year on H&MR. Importantly, this is augmented by two huge private sector philanthropy funds – the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In the UK, government funding is generally channelled through the Medical Research Council – similar to our National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But in the UK, like the US, funding is supplemented by philanthropic funds – the major sources being the giant Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. The UK’s annual H&MR expenditure is around $57 per capita from these three sources.

Australia’s H&MR expenditure from the NHMRC, notwithstanding substantial growth in the last decade, is only $37 per capita annually, significantly lower than the US and UK.

What is missing in Australia? We need a major H&MR fund of our own to augment ongoing annual allocations to the NHMRC – in other words, an Australian equivalent of the Wellcome Trust or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And that is just what the Medical Research Future Fund in effect is. The authors of this article believe that it is imperative to see this visionary fund established and fully funded, as it will underpin a new era of Australian excellence in H&MR – with benefits for the entire community’s health for generations to come.

The proposal for the MRFF has been likened to a 21st century Snowy Mountains Scheme. We think the comparison is apt, although it is easy to foresee an even bigger long-term advantage to our nation delivered by the MRFF. The MRFF represents the single most important initiative in our nation’s history to ensure that Australia stays at the leading edge of medical science, with profound benefits to our health, the world’s health, and to our economy. We urge the new Senate to throw its support behind this pioneering initiative.

Leigh Clifford AO, Chair, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute
Christopher Coyne, Acting Chair, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute
Matthew Grounds, Chair, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute
Wendy Harris QC, Chair, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
Richard Hill, Chair, Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research
John Langoulant AO, Chair, Telethon Kids Institute
Alastair Lucas AM, Chair, Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health
Harold Mitchell AC, Chair, The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health
Peter Scott, Chair, Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute
John Schubert AO, Chair, The Garvan Institute of Medical Research
Raymond Spencer, Chair, South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute
Christopher Thomas, Chair, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
David Watson, Chair, Translational Research Institute


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