Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Medical research funding – worth fighting to protect

April 15, 2011

In an effort to balance an unbalanced budget the Federal Government are said to be planning major cuts to the funds available for National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) research grants. These grants are the major source of research funding in Australia for health and medicine, and any moves to cut this funding will severely damage vitally important Australian research.

Australia has a highly respected reputation worldwide for medical research, being recognised for high quality research and innovation. Despite only having around 1% of the total medical researchers worldwide, it is estimated around 3% of internationally renowned research papers are produced by Australian scientists. By cutting research funding we do put our international reputation at risk, as well as making a noticeable dent in the total research progress of the world. Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science suggests that these cuts, should they go ahead, will send a worrying message internationally that Australia doesn’t take medical research seriously. This is especially true in light of Barack Obama’s recent speeches about the state of the US budget when he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to science, medical and technological research.

Despite Australia’s international reputation, even before these cuts Australia spends far less than other developed countries. As a proportion of our total national budget, Australia spends only 0.07% on medical research, placing us 8th in the world. As a point of comparison, the US spends 0.22% of their budget on medical research, while Singapore spends 0.23%. This suggests that rather than cuts, Australia should arguably be increasing medical research funding to maintain our international competitiveness. In fact, the cost of research increases by around 6% per year, so failing to at least match this increase already leads to the degradation of Australian research potential.

Speculation is that cuts of $400 million will be made over the next 3 years. While the annual NHMRC grant budget is around $750 million, around two-thirds of that is pre-allocated to maintain grants awarded in previous years. This leaves around $200-250 million each year for new grants, so these proposed cuts would result in around a halving of the money available for new grants to be awarded. At the moment, only around 1 in 5 applications to the NHMRC receive funding, they are extremely competitive and a process in which it is extremely tough to succeed, and reducing this success rate again will devastate Australian research. After a three year period, this has the potential to have reduced the amount of all medical research in Australia by nearly half.

If the government believes it can switch off and switch on research funding at will, it shows that they do not really understand that research just doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of switching off a machine then restarting it a year later, research funding actually pays the salaries of the researchers. By cutting funding, researchers will lose their jobs. And research isn’t something which occurs over a six to 12 month period, a research project is an ongoing endeavour which requires several years of work to contribute to the body of knowledge.  This will particularly affect young emerging scientists who are applying for their first grants. Any delay to a young scientist by not being able to get a research grant will severely affect their career prospects, as time out of research is very damaging and an interrupted research program will stall their ability to make meaningful contributions to their field.

While other countries are showing a commitment to their medical research establishments and Australia is cutting its support, these young Australian researchers will seek opportunities overseas. We already face a brain-drain, which the government laments, where the best and brightest young professionals seek overseas opportunities. Faced with a potentially career damaging loss of funding and a loss of livelihood, young scientists will face no choice but to relocate overseas where they may be able to access greater support, and studies have shown that when researchers relocate overseas, the return rate is far lower. While complaining about the brain drain, cutting medical research funding will exacerbate the problem.

Cutting funding will not only be disastrous for young up-and-coming scientists, but also for established scientists. Projects can involve several years of investigation before bringing together several threads into one significant outcome. Projects which have been funded and building up to major outcomes over the past years may find their funding dry up right when they are about to enter this significant phase. This will reduce the impact that the last decade of funding will have, and sharply reduce the return on the investment the government has already made. This isn’t just about undermining research over the coming years, but also undermining research which has already been done by preventing it coming to its proper conclusion.

Medical research plays an important part of any country’s economy. As has already been pointed out, reducing funding for research will result in serious job losses and the damaging effects this has on the economy. But research itself does contribute to the economy. Barack Obama again likened the economy to an aeroplane, and research and innovation as the engines. The last thing you want to do to an overloaded plane is throw away the engines, and he described medical research as being a “core investment”. UK Chancellor George Osborne agrees, saying “Scientific research … is vital to our future economic success.” The results of medical research funnel back directly into the economy through the commercialisation of new techniques or therapies, with a couple of recent examples being the bionic ear Cochlear and Gardasil. Australia should in fact be moving in this direction and not away from it according to Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies. She points to low skilled manufacture moving away from Australia, and “where Australia is potentially competitive is in drug development, new health technologies where there’s real opportunities for us to reignite a real economic prosperity in health related manufacturing. So from an economic point of view we’re really potentially shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting off those opportunities of creating new industries.” In fact it has been estimated that government investment in medical research provides economic return second only to the mining and retail sectors. Medical research is not a cost, it is an investment, and the returns on the investment are substantial.

Already we’ve discussed several reasons why cutting research funding will weaken Australia without even mentioning the detrimental effects on Australian health. Australian medical research has developed the bionic ear, is making strides toward bionic eyes, developed a vaccine against cervical cancer and resulted in several Nobel prizes – and that is only in recent years. While those are the high profile outcomes from Australian medical research, other results have improved the way doctors treat patients, reduced adverse effects from drugs, reduced wastage in the national pharmaceutical drug subsidy scheme, improved nutrition, helped prevent heart attacks and brain degeneration, and furthered development of anti-cancer drugs, including drugs against skin cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Every single one of these projects (and untold others) have improved the health outcomes of Australians, and research being carried out now will have a role in improving the health of Australians into the future.

Not every research project will directly produce a stunning breakthrough – that is obvious. However, every project provides pieces of the puzzle. Understanding how a cancer cell grows may provide information on how to stop them, or working out how a brain cell integrates signals may help understand mental health disorders or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s. Every piece of information found through research can add to the global knowledge, and may provide the spark for a researcher elsewhere to make that final discovery. Australia has an obligation to the global community to continue to carry out medical research for this reason. Preliminary work carried out in Australia will help researchers overseas, which will then feed back to benefit the Australian population. With an aging population, the health challenges faced by Australia are only going to increase into the future, and it is research now which will help reduce the impact of these challenges. Money spent on research now will save money in the future.

The government is being extremely short sighted if it goes ahead with these cuts. Medical research is vital for not only the health of the Australian population, but for our economy and for our international standing. Reductions to NHMRC funding will cost significant numbers of jobs, and a 3 year cut will continue to affect Australian medical research for a long time into the future. Medical research isn’t a cost; it is an investment, with the outcomes far outweighing what the government puts in. Protecting medical research is something that is worth fighting for, not only by scientists, but the population as a whole. The Discoveries Need Dollars campaign was started by scientists and built amongst scientists, but is a cause which should be supported by everyone.

Support Australia’s valuable medical research, support Discoveries Need Dollars. Visit the website and facebook

Thanks to Doug Hilton, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science, and Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies. 


Thoughts of a former Chief Scientist

March 16, 2011

John Stocker, previously chairman of the CSIRO and now a private industry scientific advisor, served as Chief Scientist of Australia from 1996 to 1999. He provided his thoughts on the role of the Chief Scientist and the future of the position.


“At the heart of the issue lies the need for the government to make evidence-based policy. And you just have to look at the huge issues facing governments everywhere, and ours in particular at the moment, ranging all the way from decisions on public health, to water use, to energy, to climate issues, to marine eco-systems, vaccination policy, and the role of Australia internationally in big science. We are a small country in population sense, but we punch hugely above our weight in some areas. And they all depend on decision makers having access to the best evidence, and also access to proper debate about the uncertainties that always underpin any evidence.  And so I think the Chief Scientist has a unique role.”


“I think the point that initially the Chief Scientist was administratively within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is an important point, and I think the closeness of the Chief Scientist to the Prime Minister, and the likelihood that the Prime Minister is going to say, “Gees, we’ve got an issue here, we need someone to talk to, wheel in the Chief Scientist,” would be greatly facilitated by going back to that model, rather than have the Chief Scientist imbedded in some other bureaucracy.”


John also suggests tailoring the role to the ideal appointee, rather than choosing an appointee who best fits a pre-designed position. “I think to decide up front that anybody who can’t do the job full-time is excluded is a silly decision, and that it may well be under some circumstances beneficial to have someone who is still practicing, active scientist, providing this independent advice to government.  And so I think it forces the course, you choose the best person you can find in the nation who is likely to be able to meet these really, really tough criteria, and then you design the system around that person.”


The Chief Scientist plays a vital role in advising government policy, and, when a new appointee is made they will need to continue this work. While the impact of the Chief Scientist has arguably been diminished recently, governments need to utilise all their resources to make the best informed policy decisions, and the Chief Scientist has, and still does, provide extremely important independent, non-political input into the direction of future government decisions.


Thanks to John Stocker from Foursight Associates.

Who or what is a Chief Scientist?

March 15, 2011

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Penny Sackett, has made news recently by abruptly leaving her post. Last week marked her last days in the role, and her departure leaves the position vacant. However not many people realise that Australia has a Chief Scientist, and even less understand what role the Chief Scientist plays.


The Chief Scientist of Australia

Australia has had a Chief Scientist since 1989 when Ralph Slatyer, an ecologist, was appointed to the position. He was succeeded in 1992 by biologist Michael Pitman, with both men serving the role full-time and accountable to the Department of the Prime Minister. Being accountable to the Department of the Prime Minister allowed both men to provide input across multiple portfolios, however in 1996 the position was moved to become part of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Technology (DIISR) and reduced to a part-time position. John Stocker, an immunologist from the CSIRO was appointed at this time, followed by Robin Batterham, then Jim Peacock. Astronomer Penny Sackett was appointed in 2008 when the role returned to a full-time position.

The main role of the Chief Scientist is to act as an advisor to the government on scientific and technology issues. In addition to this direct advisory role, the Chief Scientist is also involved in numerous committees, for example the Research Quality Framework, the National Research Priority Standing Committee and the Australian Climate Change Science Framework Coordination Group, amongst many others. The Office of the Chief Scientist also provides the secretarial service to the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Innovation Council, and the Chief Scientist him or herself holds the position as Executive Officer of that group. Through this group the Chief Scientist can greatly influence future policy decisions, in addition to their direct advisory role to the Prime Minister. For example, the Square Kilometre Array, effectively a giant telescope, was one instance when this council convinced policy makers to become involved in this international project.


The changing of the role from full-time to part-time and back to full-time, and also the move of the role from the Department of the Prime Minister to DIISR has slightly changed the effectiveness of the Chief Scientist. Positioning the Chief Scientist in DIISR potentially restricts their ability to provide input across portfolios and the advice they can provide to government, while the change in time commitments may also restrict their abilities. Whereas a full-time role allows the position-holder to concentrate solely on the role, a part-time position may allow them to keep a foot in the field and remain current in the research occurring. According to Anna-Maria Arabia from the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies and a former political advisor “I think each of those issues in terms of the terms of engagement, accountability and where the Chief Scientist and his or her office sits are all useful in determining the input that a person holding that position can have.”


Thomas Barlow, a former government advisor and a renowned corporate strategist agrees that the changes to the role have affected the abilities of the Chief Scientist. “If I had to choose between a part-time and a full-time position, I would tend to lean towards a part-time position.” He points to the need for the Chief Scientist to remain a practising scientist to retain credibility in the scientific community and not being perceived as a part of the government bureaucracy, and that with a full-time Chief Scientist “you end up with a Chief Scientist who, to an outsider, becomes seen as a spokesperson for the government, rather than an advisor to the government. And I think within the government, a Chief Scientist in a bureaucratic full-time role is very easily seen as part of the bureaucracy rather than as a part of the constituency… politicians will tend to listen more to their constituents than they do to their bureaucrats.”


International models of the Chief Scientist

It is interesting to compare the Australian model of a Chief Scientist to those found overseas. Where Australia’s Chief Scientist works within in a government department, in the UK, which has had a Chief Scientist since 1964, the Chief Scientist is more like a personal advisor to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Chief Scientist also has more public exposure and is one of the government’s most visible experts. In addition to the Chief Scientist, each government department (with the exception of the Treasury) has their own chief scientific advisors which come together as part of the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Committee. This type of model ensures a greater coverage of scientific advice over multiple portfolios, and allows the Chief Scientist to act mainly as an advisor to the PM and Cabinet rather than part of departmental bureaucracy.


The United States model is also based on an advisor working for the President. The Office of Science and Technology was established in 1976, and their main role is to advise the President and his office staff on issues relating to science and technology. A second role is to ensure that policies of government departments are informed by sound science, and that this process is properly coordinated.


It is notable that the role in both the UK and US are both more tightly associated with the head of government than it is in Australia. This potentially gives the position more impact both in advice given to the head of government and also in its ability to advise policy across departments.


Tomorrow, the thoughts of a former Chief Scientist.

Thanks to Anna-Maria Arabia from FASTS and Thomas Barlow from Barlow Advisory