Australia has a stellar history in medical research. It’s where we win our Nobel Prizes, and Australian scientists have won at least five over the past 50 years. Not bad for a country of 20 million which produces 2 per cent of the world’s research output. Yet this proud history is now under serious threat. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC), the peak funding body for medical research in Australia, is facing a possible 19 per cent cut to its already tight budget.
Rumours of potential budget cuts to the NH&MRC float around every year but this time around things are different. Senior government sources have been quoted here, here, and here predicting that the current $758 million budget may be cut by up to $400 million. This means about 800 potential lost jobs. Some suggest that the medical research community may be getting softened up and the actual figure may be half of that, resulting in 400 jobs lost.
Let’s consider this scenario: a cut of 19 per cent to a budget which is already less than a billion dollars. The lost jobs will have more wide-reaching consequences than lengthening of dole queues. They place increased pressure on the already limited resources in the scientific sector and will diminish our ability to understand the causes and to find treatments for many diseases.
Most researchers in Australia hold, at the minimum, an Honours degree in science, with most holding or studying to obtain PhDs. It is expensive to fund a PhD, but the scientists who graduate have fewer and fewer jobs available in publicly funded research. If the NH&MRC budget shrinks by even $200 million, the investment in human resources and existing research projects will be wasted.
There are limited institutions around the country where medical research can actually take place. Existing laboratories deprived of funding or with severely curtailed funding, would have to shed staff, if not close down altogether — another factor which may tilt the balance and send research scientists overseas. This resulting loss of resources and talent would be disastrous for Australian science. The momentum for various projects would be irretrievably lost, as would the expertise and associated economic benefits.
Research depends on momentum. Medical researchers will study various aspects of palliative care, treatment and the basic science of diseases. There are often many other groups working on, say a gene of interest, and as patents are illegal in Europe and Australia, all scientists run the risk of being scooped to publication in research journals. Once a scientist publishes a series of studies in the form of a paper, the momentum gained must be maintained: to stay ahead of the game, to provide impetus for continued funding, and to take the work to the clinic as soon as possible. The better your publication record, the more likely you are to receive funding or renewal of a grant, increasing your momentum and likelihood of taking your work to the public domain.
In reality, investment in research does not simply result in scientific papers in esteemed and obscure journals: it leads to better understanding of diseases, treatments, and most importantly, better outcomes for patients. According to Access Economics, the cost of $1 investment in research produces a net return of $5 in economic benefit. The loss of research output will affect us for years to come and reduce the rate of discovery, and, therefore, the translation of research from lab to patient significantly.
Public funding for medical research is not administered in this fashion in the United States. It’s now 40 years since then US President Richard Nixon signed off on the National Cancer Act, as part of a wider commitment to finding treatments for cancer (reviewed by the distinguished journal, Science). The war on cancer had been unleashed and to this day is still being fought. A committed international effort has sought to find the underlying causes of cancer, at the lifestyle and molecular level, and to find treatments. The NCI now spends about $5 billion a year on cancer treatments and research, and in the past 40 years, has spent about $90 billion on cancer treatment, patients, science and prevention. The key significance of signing the Act was that it guaranteed funding to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), generating a funding increase for the NCI almost immediately. Since then, the budget for the NCI has not been cut in the US federal budget. This guaranteed support has meant that the US has become a world leader in the treatment and understanding of cancer and other diseases.
And last year, the UK government threatened to cut significant funding to universities and research institutions. This threat met with petitions and protest from the community and scientists themselves. Eventually, the UK government chose not to implement the cuts and instead will give AUD$1.26 billion to medical research over five years. Given the dire state of the UK economy, this decision shows recognition of the longterm and fundamental importance of medical research to public health and the economy in the long term.
The NH&MRC presents as a soft-target for budget cuts by a government desperate to return a surplus. But it cannot be sacrificed for such short-term gain, when the long-term implications are so dire.
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