Australian medical researchers can continue their work to improve the nation’s health with more confidence in the federal Government’s commitment to maintain their financial support after last night’s federal budget.
Earlier in the year, rumours circulated that well-placed sources had indicated the government intended to cut the budget for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which administers the federal government’s medical research funding. While nothing was certain, there was speculation that the cuts could be as high as $400 million over 4 years — a 20 per cent cut to the Commonwealth’s annual $715 million commitment to medical research.
For several weeks, while the government refused to confirm or deny their intentions for the NHMRC budget, concern in the general community grew. Many took to social media groups including Facebook and Twitter to explain why medical research funding was important to them.
Medical researchers feared for their jobs, and were concerned that research teams that may have built up expertise over decades would be under threat in a leaner funding environment. Clinicians spoke of new treatments close to benefitting patients that could be endangered. And, most notably, Australians whose lives had been affected by disease spoke of their hopes for medical research to improve the health of themselves, their families, or others who may experience the same health problems in the future. Thousands of Australians attended Rallies for Research in every capital city, contacted newspapers, called talkback radio, and signed petitions to send a message to the government that they believed medical research funding was too important to be cut.
Last night the government delivered a budget in which NHMRC funding was maintained. While we may never know for sure the magnitude of cuts that had been discussed in early budget preparations, the Australian community’s outrage at the suggestion that medical research funding could be cut should be remembered by any government planning a budget in the future. Australians understand the importance of medical research to improving the nation’s health, and their elected representatives need to follow suit.
Australians support substantial government investment in health and medical research, and recognise that Australian researchers have the ideas and skills to improve the health of Australians and to make healthcare more affordable. We now need a vision to deliver these benefits rapidly and in a manner that is inclusive of the entire community — Indigenous and non-Indigenous, urban, regional, rural and remote, young and old — and to do this in an economically sustainable fashion.
Rising to this challenge, the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, who oversees the NHMRC, has announced a strategic review of Australian medical research funding to recommend a way forward for Australian health and medical research over the next decade. The review should recommend the most effective balance of Australia’s research effort across the pillars of health and medical research: basic, clinical, public health and health economic research. It should investigate the best system of dividing investment in health and medical research between government, the private sector and philanthropic support. It should explore how to improve the translation of results to benefit patients rapidly and finally it should promote the most efficient strategies to prevent disease, maintain people’s health and deliver first-class healthcare in an economically sustainable manner.
The federal government’s ongoing commitment to maintaining the NHMRC funding will give the government, researchers, clinicians and other healthcare providers and the community time to investigate how we can enhance our strengths, mitigate any weaknesses, and build an even stronger base from which to improve our nation’s health for the remainder of the 21st century.
Australians have shown their support for ongoing government investment in health and medical research. A review that strengthens the sector should allow for a non-partisan approach to medical research funding from future governments.
In the coming decades, Australian medical researchers, along with healthcare professionals, have the potential to deliver unprecedented improvements in the life expectancy and quality of life of all Australians. It is gratifying that in tough economic times the Gillard Government continues to show its commitment to support these aims.
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