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Abbott backs medical research

The Coalition has pledged to streamline grants for medical research and shield the National Health and Medical Research Council from budget cuts as it begins to roll out policy ahead of the Federal election.

Drawing on the findings of the McKeon Review into the nation’s health and medical research system, the Opposition has promised to overhaul the way in which research projects are assessed and funded and make it easier to conduct clinical trials.

The policy, unveiled by Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton on 24 June, calls for the simplification of the research grant application and assessment process, and a transition in the term of NHMRC grants from three to five years.

The Opposition has also embraced a McKeon Review recommendation that a “triage” system be established to winnow out uncompetitive grant applications at an early stage in the assessment process.

To improve the nation’s attractiveness as a destination to host clinical trials, the Coalition also plans to “move swiftly towards a nationally consistent approach” to the way trials are conducted and overseen, if elected.

Mr Abbott said the changes were much needed if Australia was to remain a world leader in medical research.

“Investing and supporting medical research is one of the best long-term investments in health that a government can make,” Mr Abbott said. “The Coalition has listened to our medical researchers, who have said that existing guidelines and processes are cumbersome, costly and inefficient.”

The McKeon Review found that NHMRC grant applications were complex and time consuming to make, with estimates that researchers spent up to a quarter of their time applying for or reviewing grants.

“This is not the most productive use of our best and brightest minds,” the Coalition policy said. “Our researchers want to be in the clinic and the lab, working for the betterment of patients and the health system, not trawling through mountains of unnecessary paperwork.”

Universities Australia said the Coalition’s pledge to protect medical research funding was welcome, but called for the commitment to be extended to include non-medical research as well.

It warned the Opposition’s policy risked creating a two-tier research sector.

Meanwhile, the Australian Research Committee has embarked on the most comprehensive analysis of the nation’s research capacity every undertaken, with effective delivery of health care nominated as one of 15 research priorities.

According to the Opposition, supporting medical research is part of a broader strategy to ensure the nation maintains a diverse economic base.

Prior to the policy’s launch, Mr Dutton was forced to defend the Coalition’s position on health.

Challenged over his admission to The Australian Financial Review  last month that health was a lower campaign priority for the Coalition than asylum seekers or the cost of living, the Shadow Health Minister told ABC television the Opposition would have a “cracker” of a health platform.

He said the health policy had been developed following extensive consultation and was “ready to go”, but added it would be released at a time of the Coalition’s choosing.

“We will have a cracker of a policy,” Mr Dutton said. “We’ve got a lot that we will announce, at an appropriate time. We’ll make our announcements at a time that suits us.”

But he has been regularly taunted by Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, who said he has barely asked her a question on health in Parliament.

AR

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