Medical research key to improving the health and wealth of Australia

Medical research key to improving the health and wealth of Australia

16th November, 2012

From opinion piece by Professor Brendan Crabb, AAMRI President, in Australian Life Scientist, 16 November

Australian health and medical research is at a pivot point. Without doubt the next few years will see important policy and funding decisions made within our sector that will leave a legacy for the health and wellbeing of the Australian community for decades to come.

As the incoming President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), my goal is to ensure the voice of our independent medical research institutes is strong and articulate as these decisions are made.

Most importantly I want to ensure we remain powerful advocates for a sustained government commitment to health and medical research.

Research is long-term in nature, so there is a tendency for it to be viewed as an ‘easy cut’ or luxury. This thinking must change. With federal Treasury projections showing that health costs will account for half of all government spend by 2050, investment in medical research is imperative.

The annual budgetary uncertainty faced by Australia’s medical researchers compromises the future of the sector. It discourages private sector investment in medical research, jeopardises long-term research projects and threatens to send our highly trained researchers overseas in their search for funding certainty.

With a federal election expected within a year, and ongoing pressure on both state and federal budgets, we must succeed in educating parliamentarians that research is an investment in Australia’s future, not a cost.

The health and medical research sector is, of course, also eagerly awaiting the final recommendations of the McKeon Review. As the first strategic review of our sector in 15 years, its importance cannot be overstated. The draft recommendations released recently were promising in their scope and depth, but ultimately much will rest on how the government chooses to respond. We must all ensure the McKeon Review is more than just a blueprint that sits on our shelves – lobbying for multi-partisan support for the Review’s recommendations, and facilitating their implementation.

On behalf of Australia’s medical research institutes, I am deeply committed to addressing the grossly inadequate and unequal distribution of funds for the indirect costs of research. As a country we should fully fund the best research, including indirect costs, in order to maximise productivity and enhance outcomes across the sector.

There is also much that can be done to improve productivity and efficiency in the sector. Any system that requires researchers to spend up to a third of their time applying for grants for which there is a 20 per cent success rate needs reform. AAMRI will continue to advocate for a drastic reduction in the number of research grant applications each year by making individual grants larger and longer term, in line with other major OECD nations.

Finally, there is a strong recognition that while we are among the world’s best at discovery, the Australian health and medical research sector is not as effective at translating this research into health solutions. Through discussions with the sector, AAMRI has proposed five key initiatives to turn this poor record of translation on its head, in its report Enhancing the commercialisation outcomes of health and medical research. It is imperative that the sector delivers strong returns on the Government’s investment in medical research through improved health outcomes and economic returns.

These and the many other issues the sector faces can only be addressed if the medical research sector maintains a strong relationship with government at all levels. As AAMRI President, I look forward to an open dialogue with both elected representatives and policy makers to ensure the value of medical research is at the forefront of decision-making.

As the McKeon Review recognises, health and medical research is one of Australia’s defining industries, underpinning the future health and wealth of the nation. However, without a disciplined approach to policy implementation and improved efficiency we risk losing our hard-fought place on the world stage.

AAMRI remains a committed advocate for the vitality and wellbeing of the entire sector, and I urge everyone in the sector to play an active role in advancing the interests of health and medical research in our truly ‘clever’ country.