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NHMRC

Mar 8, 2012

Where should health and medical research be heading? Now is the time for speaking up

If you’ve a concern for the direction of health and medical research in Australia, you have until the

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If you’ve a concern for the direction of health and medical research in Australia, you have until the end of this month to make a submission to the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research.

The review, which is due to produce a final report later this year, plans to conduct public consultations from April to July. The terms of reference are here.

In the article below, Professor Doug Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, encourages readers to engage with the review process.

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Help to create the road map for health and medical research in Australia

Doug Hilton writes:

Australian health and medical research is emerging from a turbulent phase in its history. Australians now have a chance to influence – and improve – the next decade of health and medical research, by contributing to the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research.

In the past five years, the scale of investment in new health and medical research buildings was truly impressive. We saw a suite of major capital projects to build health and medical research infrastructure initiated in all Australian state capitals. These were born in the time of record budget surpluses, and later continued in the name of budget stimulus.

Having first-class facilities in which to conduct medical research is important, but not sufficient for our success.

Australia needs to be able to attract, train and retain first-class researchers. We need to provide our researchers with equipment and resources to do their experiments. We need to ensure our researchers have time to be creative rather than being overwhelmed by the task of financing and administering their operations. We need provide our clinicians time for research. These challenges are in the realm of recurrent funding and there lies the contrast.

After five years of phenomenal investment in buildings, recurrent funding for health and medical research has been static at best: the Australian health and medical research sector is under stress. For our researchers to thrive we must increase the funding committed to health and medical research and we must continually strive to use that funding more productively and efficiently.

When the need is so obvious, why are the politicians so suspicious and sceptical of researchers? Why was the federal government’s peak medical research funding body, the National Health and Medical Research Council, considered for drastic cuts at the last budget? Why did the public have to lobby government so hard to maintain this funding?

One reason is that in the recent past we have failed to create a compelling narrative of what health and medical research provides and, hence why it should be supported.

The federal government has commissioned a Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research, chaired by 2011 Australian of the year Simon McKeon, which provides us with an opportunity to articulate what the health and medical research sector delivers for the community.

Four broad benefits that health and medical research delivers for the Australian community spring to mind:

1. Research brings health benefits to Australians, and local research brings Australians early access to these benefits

An example from my own institute is the discovery of the colony stimulating factors which have helped more than 10 million cancer patients battle their disease. The Australian expertise built during the discovery of colony stimulating factors ensured that Australian patients were amongst the first in the world to be treated with colony stimulating factors.

2. Health and medical research is a sound economic investment

Numerous reports, most recently from Deloitte Access Economics, have determined that government investment in health and medical research yields considerable economic benefits, stemming from reduced healthcare costs to the community, increases in individuals’ productivity and wellbeing, employment, and financial returns arising through commercialisation. However, while important and certainly sufficient to justify government investment, health and medical research delivers much more than simple economic returns.

 3. Research improves the accessibility and affordability of healthcare

The fields of health economics research and health systems research seek ways to make our healthcare system more efficient, and make the treatments others discover widely available rather than a luxury afforded to a wealthy few.

4. Research provides hope and inspiration for Australians

While some would prefer all benefits of health and medical research to be easily measured and benchmarked against other sectors, I do not think the less tangible benefits should be forgotten. One of these is hope: perhaps hope for a cure for an individual suffering from generally untreatable illnesses such as motor neurone disease or pancreatic cancer, but also hope that in the future these diseases will not impact other members of the community. Research inspires the community to believe that we can make the future a brighter time than the present. A vibrant research sector in Australia – like vibrant arts, sport and environmental sectors – builds a more vibrant community, and this is the Australia in which I and, most Australians, want to live.

How can we ensure that Australia has the best health and medical research sector that it can?

The recommendations of the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research – a road map for the sector into the next decade – will be critical for this. I hope many from the Australian community, not just economists, clinicians and researchers, will voice their opinions about the sector.

The review’s structure encourages engagement with the broader community – brief submissions under 300 words can entered directly at the review’s website.

To further facilitate community involvement in the review, the grassroots health and medical research advocacy group, Discoveries Need Dollars, has established a suite of resources relating the review. It has also been indicated that the review will hold public consultations in every state capital in the coming months.

Now is the time to show your support for Australian health and medical research. Tell the review why you support health and medical research in Australia, and how it could be made even better. Our community will reap the benefits.

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