As you’ve no doubt heard, the health and medical research community is rising up in revolt against impending federal budget cutbacks to the NHMRC.

It seems bizarre to be contemplating such cuts at a time when Australia’s economy has been doing relatively well. It seems doubly bizarre after the years of rhetoric about the Government’s commitment to health reform, given the importance of knowledge generation for informing health policy, health care and service delivery.  The Government seems set to burn any residual goodwill that it may have earnt from its slogging away on health reform.

But we’ve been told for months that this is going to be a tough budget because of the Government’s determination to balance the books. Perhaps the time for the health sector to have been engaging proactively in debate was back when the PM and Treasurer were signalling their determination to slash and burn.

Why is the health sector so often missing from the big-picture economic debates?  We didn’t hear too much from it during the resources super profit tax debate either.

Perhaps the research community could advance their cause by helping governments identify where money can be saved in health spending. Perhaps we could have more efforts like this 2009 article in The Medical Journal of Australia, Identifying existing health care services that do not provide value for money. Similar themes were also raised in this Croakey post.

It will be interesting to see whether health and medical researchers will be able to muster the public and political clout of the miners. Clearly, they’re going to give it their best shot, judging by the campaign getting underway, and detailed below:


Discoveries Need Dollars

This campaign, which includes rallies in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide planned for April 12, is telling the government that protecting medical research funding is an investment in the future health of Australians, and has been initiated by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. An excerpt:

What’s at risk if the budget is cut?

  • people’s access to future health benefits
  • medical research jobs
  • retaining Australia’s best scientists
  • reducing Australia’s future health spend
  • the long-term investment previous governments have made in large research programs


Rally for research

A Facebook page for rally in Sydney on April 12. And more online activism here.


Extract of a joint statement from Public Health Association of Australia & Council of Academic Public Health Institutes of Australia

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and the Council of Academic Public Health Institutes of Australia (CAPHIA) have written to the Prime Minister and colleagues to express concern about possible funding cuts to National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) research.

The letter from the two leading public health organisations has also been signed by over 150 Professors of Public Health from around the country, who say the proposed cuts come at a time of unprecedented reform including in the primary health care and preventive sector.

“A previous Federal budget saw the abolition of the Public Health Education and Research Program (PHERP) with a major impact on a range of public health programs.  Every University has been impacted by the loss of PHERP funding which in turn affects capacity building in the public health workforce.  Now, proposed cuts to the NHMRC research funds will have further impact on public health research,” explained Professor Helen Keleher, PHAA President.

“Public health research has struggled to gain funding within NHMRC to a level anywhere near on par with its policy relevance and population impact.  It remains especially vulnerable to disproportionate reductions if budget cuts are instituted.  Public health research tends to produce long term rather than short term outcomes and is therefore more vulnerable to cutbacks than other forms of research. However, it is also true that many of the great advances in improved health outcomes have come through public health.  If we are to improve population health and address health inequities, we must invest in public health research to inform programs and policy,” said Professor Keleher.

A full copy of the letter sent by PHAA and CAPHIA to the Prime Minister, Treasurer, Minister for Education and Minister for Health is available on the PHAA website.


Get Up campaign

Dear All,

The threat of $400 million cuts to NHMRC funding is no longer a rumour. It has been confirmed that this is already drafted into the May budget.

To place this in perspective, the NHMRC commits to around $800 million of grants per annum.  That covers projects, programs, fellowships, scholarships all of which directly support you. A cut like this, even implemented over three years, will severely damage the funding of any future grants / fellowships. This will disproportionately affect those of you who are applying right now or were hoping to in the coming years. In the long term, it takes us back about a decade.

We have probably no more than a week to influence this decision.

What can you do?

Follow this link to Get Up and register votes in support of no cuts to medical research funding.

This is currently the third most voted for item, yet it only has around 1000 votes.

The 60 seconds it will take for you to do this may save your career or your job, let alone saving lives of Australians into the future.

A number of groups have developed websites about this and GetUp are about to start on it as well.


Maternity researchers join the protests

Leading maternity researchers have signed the following letter to Ministers Nicola Roxon and Mark Butler.

Dear Ministers Roxon and Butler

I am writing to you in your capacity as Ministers responsible for health including responsibility for the National Health and Medical Research Council. I am writing on behalf of the country’s leading maternity service researchers. We are midwives, obstetricians and perinatal epidemiologists and maternity researchers (see the list of names below) who are committed to improving maternity and perinatal care for Australian mothers and babies and implementing the new National Maternity Plan endorsed by AHMAC in November 2010. This national plan would never have been developed without high quality evidence obtained from research.

We believe that there are to be significant funding cuts to the NHMRC in the coming budget. If implemented, these funding cuts will have sudden and devastating effects on Australia for decades to come – this will impact on the capacity to improve the health of Australians through research and development. For example, we will no longer be able to test new interventions, study new models of care, understand how best to use the limited health workforce we have and develop strategies to improve quality and safety. The only way to reduce health costs is through continued strong investment in health and medical research and funding cuts of any amount will mean the capacity to do this is gone.

Health reform is predicated on having high level evidence about health care, health services, clinical care, basic science and population health. Funding cuts, even small, will affect future research and development in this country. Any funding cuts will mean there will be no evidence to make long term decisions about the health system – something that will put Australia behind the rest of the world for decades.

The research workforce (who are mostly funded by short-term project grants) will all lose their jobs – not to mention how many years it will take to reverse the “brain drain” that would result. PhD students will diminish in number and people will leave research forever. Even one year’s cut will have an impact for years to come by researchers leaving the work force and students refusing to enter it. The amount saved on the overall budget is minimal but the impact on medical research is enormous.

These funding cuts will affect the health of all Australians.

We urge you to show your commitment to Australian health and medical research by calling for, as a minimum, maintenance of NHMRC funding in the May 2011 Budget. Please protect health and medical research.

Signatories include:

Professor Caroline Homer, Professor of Midwifery, UTS

On behalf of the following researchers: Professor Lesley Barclay AO

Professor and Director

Northern Rivers University Department of Rural Health Medical School, Sydney University;

Professor Sue Kildea

Chair of Midwifery

Australian Catholic University and Mater Mothers’ Hospital

Dr Della Forster

La Trobe University and The Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne

Professor Jonathan Morris

Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Sydney

Professor Sally Tracy

Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health Nursing, University of Sydney

Professor Virginia Schmied

University of Western Sydney

Associate Professor Hannah Dahlen

University of Western Sydney

Geraldine Vaughan

Project Coordinator, Australian Maternity Outcomes Surveillance System (AMOSS)

University of NSW

Professor Jeremy Oats

Chair Victorian Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity, Medical Co-Director Northern Territory Integrated Maternity Services, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne

Dr Helen McLachlan

Associate Professor of Midwifery, La Trobe University

Dr Joanne Gray

President, Australian College of Midwives (NSWBranch)

Philippa Middleton

Co-Director: Australian Research Centre for the Health of Women and Babies, The University of Adelaide

Associate Professor

Jennifer Fenwick, University of Technology Sydney


Some of the media coverage of the cuts




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