Future, Health and medicine, Policy

Medical research funding – worth fighting to protect

In an effort to balance an unbalanced budget the Federal Government are said to be planning major cuts to the funds available for National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) research grants. These grants are the major source of research funding in Australia for health and medicine, and any moves to cut this funding will severely damage vitally important Australian research.

Australia has a highly respected reputation worldwide for medical research, being recognised for high quality research and innovation. Despite only having around 1% of the total medical researchers worldwide, it is estimated around 3% of internationally renowned research papers are produced by Australian scientists. By cutting research funding we do put our international reputation at risk, as well as making a noticeable dent in the total research progress of the world. Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science suggests that these cuts, should they go ahead, will send a worrying message internationally that Australia doesn’t take medical research seriously. This is especially true in light of Barack Obama’s recent speeches about the state of the US budget when he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to science, medical and technological research.

Despite Australia’s international reputation, even before these cuts Australia spends far less than other developed countries. As a proportion of our total national budget, Australia spends only 0.07% on medical research, placing us 8th in the world. As a point of comparison, the US spends 0.22% of their budget on medical research, while Singapore spends 0.23%. This suggests that rather than cuts, Australia should arguably be increasing medical research funding to maintain our international competitiveness. In fact, the cost of research increases by around 6% per year, so failing to at least match this increase already leads to the degradation of Australian research potential.

Speculation is that cuts of $400 million will be made over the next 3 years. While the annual NHMRC grant budget is around $750 million, around two-thirds of that is pre-allocated to maintain grants awarded in previous years. This leaves around $200-250 million each year for new grants, so these proposed cuts would result in around a halving of the money available for new grants to be awarded. At the moment, only around 1 in 5 applications to the NHMRC receive funding, they are extremely competitive and a process in which it is extremely tough to succeed, and reducing this success rate again will devastate Australian research. After a three year period, this has the potential to have reduced the amount of all medical research in Australia by nearly half.

If the government believes it can switch off and switch on research funding at will, it shows that they do not really understand that research just doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of switching off a machine then restarting it a year later, research funding actually pays the salaries of the researchers. By cutting funding, researchers will lose their jobs. And research isn’t something which occurs over a six to 12 month period, a research project is an ongoing endeavour which requires several years of work to contribute to the body of knowledge.  This will particularly affect young emerging scientists who are applying for their first grants. Any delay to a young scientist by not being able to get a research grant will severely affect their career prospects, as time out of research is very damaging and an interrupted research program will stall their ability to make meaningful contributions to their field.

While other countries are showing a commitment to their medical research establishments and Australia is cutting its support, these young Australian researchers will seek opportunities overseas. We already face a brain-drain, which the government laments, where the best and brightest young professionals seek overseas opportunities. Faced with a potentially career damaging loss of funding and a loss of livelihood, young scientists will face no choice but to relocate overseas where they may be able to access greater support, and studies have shown that when researchers relocate overseas, the return rate is far lower. While complaining about the brain drain, cutting medical research funding will exacerbate the problem.

Cutting funding will not only be disastrous for young up-and-coming scientists, but also for established scientists. Projects can involve several years of investigation before bringing together several threads into one significant outcome. Projects which have been funded and building up to major outcomes over the past years may find their funding dry up right when they are about to enter this significant phase. This will reduce the impact that the last decade of funding will have, and sharply reduce the return on the investment the government has already made. This isn’t just about undermining research over the coming years, but also undermining research which has already been done by preventing it coming to its proper conclusion.

Medical research plays an important part of any country’s economy. As has already been pointed out, reducing funding for research will result in serious job losses and the damaging effects this has on the economy. But research itself does contribute to the economy. Barack Obama again likened the economy to an aeroplane, and research and innovation as the engines. The last thing you want to do to an overloaded plane is throw away the engines, and he described medical research as being a “core investment”. UK Chancellor George Osborne agrees, saying “Scientific research … is vital to our future economic success.” The results of medical research funnel back directly into the economy through the commercialisation of new techniques or therapies, with a couple of recent examples being the bionic ear Cochlear and Gardasil. Australia should in fact be moving in this direction and not away from it according to Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies. She points to low skilled manufacture moving away from Australia, and “where Australia is potentially competitive is in drug development, new health technologies where there’s real opportunities for us to reignite a real economic prosperity in health related manufacturing. So from an economic point of view we’re really potentially shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting off those opportunities of creating new industries.” In fact it has been estimated that government investment in medical research provides economic return second only to the mining and retail sectors. Medical research is not a cost, it is an investment, and the returns on the investment are substantial.

Already we’ve discussed several reasons why cutting research funding will weaken Australia without even mentioning the detrimental effects on Australian health. Australian medical research has developed the bionic ear, is making strides toward bionic eyes, developed a vaccine against cervical cancer and resulted in several Nobel prizes – and that is only in recent years. While those are the high profile outcomes from Australian medical research, other results have improved the way doctors treat patients, reduced adverse effects from drugs, reduced wastage in the national pharmaceutical drug subsidy scheme, improved nutrition, helped prevent heart attacks and brain degeneration, and furthered development of anti-cancer drugs, including drugs against skin cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Every single one of these projects (and untold others) have improved the health outcomes of Australians, and research being carried out now will have a role in improving the health of Australians into the future.

Not every research project will directly produce a stunning breakthrough – that is obvious. However, every project provides pieces of the puzzle. Understanding how a cancer cell grows may provide information on how to stop them, or working out how a brain cell integrates signals may help understand mental health disorders or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s. Every piece of information found through research can add to the global knowledge, and may provide the spark for a researcher elsewhere to make that final discovery. Australia has an obligation to the global community to continue to carry out medical research for this reason. Preliminary work carried out in Australia will help researchers overseas, which will then feed back to benefit the Australian population. With an aging population, the health challenges faced by Australia are only going to increase into the future, and it is research now which will help reduce the impact of these challenges. Money spent on research now will save money in the future.

The government is being extremely short sighted if it goes ahead with these cuts. Medical research is vital for not only the health of the Australian population, but for our economy and for our international standing. Reductions to NHMRC funding will cost significant numbers of jobs, and a 3 year cut will continue to affect Australian medical research for a long time into the future. Medical research isn’t a cost; it is an investment, with the outcomes far outweighing what the government puts in. Protecting medical research is something that is worth fighting for, not only by scientists, but the population as a whole. The Discoveries Need Dollars campaign was started by scientists and built amongst scientists, but is a cause which should be supported by everyone.

Support Australia’s valuable medical research, support Discoveries Need Dollars. Visit the website www.discoveriesneeddollars.org and facebook www.facebook.com/discoveriesneeddollars

Thanks to Doug Hilton, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science, and Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies. 

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