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Taking to the streets to protect medical research funding

A rally of white-coated scientists and lab technicians rally against cuts to research funding in Perth, April 14, 2011. AAP Image/Lloyd Jones

Australia’s usually mild-mannered medical researchers marched in the streets a year ago to protest mooted government budget cuts. In the face of widespread outcry, the government chose to maintain the $746 million of funding to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) it had threatened to cut.

While this was a welcome outcome, Australia’s health and medical research community remains wary that its funding may be under threat in the longer term. There’s no doubt the Government is looking under every rock for savings as it aims to return the budget to surplus. But we shouldn’t have to march in the streets to protect funding for a sector that delivers so much to the country’s economy and the future health of our citizens.

It’s worth noting that in the last year alone, Australian researchers have announced huge advances in medical and health science. We’ve made breakthroughs in the development of new malaria drugs and vaccines, discovered a potential future treatment for prostate cancer, and made progress in the treatment of aggressive melanoma skin cancers.

These are just a few among a host of equally important discoveries that aren’t as simple to communicate but may be the foundations to defeating the big health threats of tomorrow. What’s more, such medical advances don’t just benefit Australians – these are discoveries of global significance. Malaria, for example, kills nearly a million people each year.

Australia’s medical advances would not have been possible without the funding that our researchers marched in the street to protect. The challenges facing the health system can only be solved by investing in generating new knowledge and applying it – be it health economics, understanding how to stem obesity, or the next revolutionary treatment for cancer.

The Australian Government’s investment in health and medical research is lower than both the United States and other countries in the OECD. In the US, the government invests 0.31% of gross domestic product (GDP) in medical research; in the OECD the figure is 0.11% of GDP. In Australia, the government invests only 0.09% of GDP in the sector (18% less than the OECD average). This figure that will see us going backwards over time as we compete with the strong research commitment we are seeing in other countries, such as China and Korea.

There’s no doubt that research can be expensive, but the alternative is more so. And under-investment is clearly short sighted. The work of our health and medical researchers ultimately keeps more people out of hospital, and brings new efficiencies to our health system. It reduces the ever-increasing drain on government funds.

Every dollar invested in health and medical research is estimated to return on average $2.17 in health benefits, ultimately helping us tackle our booming health costs and minimising the future burden on the community.

Research also delivers strong economic dividends – our medicines industry is our most valuable high-technology exporter and alone is worth almost $4 billion in exports annually.

As Treasury finalises the budget it should consider our nation’s current strength in this sector as a tool to sustain our economy beyond the mining-led boom.

In the face of last year’s protests about potential budget cuts, the government announced the independent McKeon Review of health and medical research. The review will recommend a ten-year plan for the sector. This is an important opportunity for everyone involved to contribute to shaping our investment in the future health of the Australian community and I encourage everyone with an interest in the country’s future health to contribute.

And while we await the review recommendations, I also urge the government to look to the long term in setting the budget for 2012-2013. Rather than having to march in the streets to protect medical research funding, let researchers use their energy working towards a road map for a more efficient and effective health system, and a healthier Australia.

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