Issue 16 / 9 May 2011

Rallying to a noble cause

WE recently witnessed an unprecedented phenomenon — the Australian medical research community galvanised to take part in national protests.

These quietly industrious and dedicated scientists had been genuinely alarmed by persistent rumours that the 2011 federal Budget was to gouge $400 million from NHMRC research funding.

Using those typical weasel words so favoured by powerbrokers, the “rumour” was “rumoured” to be “anonymously confirmed” by sources in the inner political circle. Upon reflection, public pronouncements by federal Minister of Health Nicola Roxon to The Australian suddenly made sense. She told the newspaper she had “a difficult message for the research community”, whom she warned should not “imagine that the expenditure in their area will not be closely assessed”.

This turn of events was apparently driven by the Labor government’s determination to address the blowout in national expenditure.

In response to the rumour of proposed funding cuts, the research community mounted an aggressive publicity campaign. This included a petition by 36 of the current 38 holders of the prestigious Australia Fellowship. They noted that the research cut would run counter to actions of other countries in worse financial circumstances than Australia — countries that had nevertheless undertaken to maintain their medical research budgets.

It is significant that renowned directors of iconic research centres such as the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research lent their not inconsiderable weight to the campaign, speaking publicly of their dismay and frustration at having their concerns dismissed in such a cavalier fashion.

Closer to the grassroots of the research community were public demonstrations and rallies mounted by the researchers in state capitals. In Sydney, crowds of lab-coated, placard-waving researchers attended a lunchtime rally in the CBD. United, they listened respectfully to those from within their close-knit community, who spoke with passion of their determination to be heard.

The speakers predicted that the $400-million cut would inhibit young researchers from entering or continuing in research, resulting in an inevitable brain drain to safe research havens such as the US and, most importantly, that the community would be deprived of the advances in preventive and curative medicine. In short, Australia would become an importer rather than an exporter of research advances in health.

Many demonstrators carried incisive placards — “SOS: Save Our Science” read one; “Long-term health, not short-term surplus” another. Among the speakers, Bill Ferris, chairman of the Garvan Institute, declared that cuts to medical research funding made no sense: “Cutting research, for me, just does not pass the commonsense test or the economics 101 test.”

Professor Bob Graham, executive director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, argued that, in the long term, medical research saved money: “Let me tell you about just one study into stroke treatment carried out at the Hunter Medical Research Institute. It cost $1 million and is now saving the taxpayer $31 million a year. Now that’s return.”

Professor David James, director of the Garvan’s Diabetes and Obesity Research Program, drew cheers and applause from the gathering with his advice to the Prime Minister: “Not only do we expect you not to cut the medical research budget, we expect you to increase it.”

Walking home from the rally, I was overwhelmed by the thought that threats to research funding were nothing new. They occur at regular intervals and have prompted various reviews such as the Wills Report. This seminal report was followed by a considerable increase in NHMRC funding, but a commitment for its permanency has proven elusive.

All this recent passion and rhetoric has been based on “rumours” and we will finally know tomorrow (Tuesday) night, when the Budget is handed down, what the reality is.

After initially refusing to be drawn on whether funding cuts were pending, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard indicated that NHMRC research funding would not be axed in the budget.

Surely, after such monumental political mischief-making, the Australian research community must demand a genuine commitment to preserving the future for our most precious resource — our intellectual capital.

Dr Martin Van Der Weyden is emeritus editor of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Posted 9 May 2011

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