Budgets are never too sick for hand-outs to medical researchers

STONE the crows! But the feds are fiendish – hiding in plain view all those calls for cash that don’t come from people with strong union connections, based in swinging seats or vast popular support.

While people who need appeasing get money, others get the Sybil Fawlty treatment, all sorts of sympathetic attention and affirmation (“I know, I know, I know oh yes I know”) but no action.

The trick is to know who it is safe to ignore and who to pay off.

Last week, the Gillard Government announced $40 million to keep the Alcoa aluminium smelter in business.[i] Naturally the decision was based on sound policy reasons and had nothing to do with the carbon tax (tough for big electricity consumers) or that the smelter is important to two Labor seats – Corangamite (2010 two party preferred margin: 0.41 per cent) and Corio (two party preferred margin: 14.2 per cent, which should make it safe, but maybe doesn’t).[ii]

It’s a decision from the free lunch policy menu, which desperate governments order off to save seats.

But ministers are not as generous with lobbies they can keep quiet as cheaply as possible – these groups get inquiries. Like the book industry.

An alliance of publishers and printers unable to compete with offshore and increasingly online competitors demanded government help so the feds appointed a committee to put together a wish list – which called, what a surprise, for continuing protection from competitors and $15 million from Canberra to help existing publishers get their online act together.[iii].

But while they called, Canberra did not hear – quietly knocking back the funding demand last month.[iv]

In the end, these subsidy seekers got Sybiled with lots of “oh yes I knows” but no money to solve their problem.

Understandably so for while this is a loud lobby it is also light on for political power. And the printed book trade is the twenty-first century equivalent of the Union of Yorkshire Handloom Weavers at the end of the eighteenth century.

The same sort of strategy is also being used on the medical research industry which, and brace yourself for a shock here, wants more public money.

But it’s being used for a different purpose. In the past, this group was easy to ignore. Researchers have whinged so loud and long about inadequate funding that nobody ever pays any attention.

Until, that is, the 2011 budget season when a rumour went round the National Health and Medical Research Council that the budget was to take a $400 million cut.[v]

The industry went berserk writing, lobbying, demonstrating to make it plain that losing any money all but ensured half the country would be dead of plague within weeks.[vi]

When the Crows, wearing one of their other hats, suggested the NHMRC was privileged at the expense of other research fields, they were warned they would think differently when diagnosed with (insert name of researchers favourite now incurable disease here). [vii]

Even though economist Judith Sloan and the Productivity Commission both make a case for questioning the cost-benefit of ever-more medical research, the popular belief that we have a constitutional right to immortality ensured the cut never occurred.[viii]

But if you think this was enough for the research community, the Crows have a bridge you might like to buy.

By July, an industry lobby was making the case for on-going 4 per cent annual increases in research funding.[ix] The Crows used to argue that if the entire federal budget was devoted to Medicare, the industry would still say it wasn’t enough. They were wrong – it wouldn’t even keep the scientists silent.

However, even impossible demands from a group, which has just discovered its political prowess are not wisely ignored and so Canberra established (what a surprise) – an inquiry.

Last September, a “strategic review of health and medical research” was established chaired by CSIRO chair and Macquarie banker Simon McKeon.[x]

Due to report by year’s end, Mr McKeon and his colleagues are busy holding hearings, receiving 330 plus submissions, working away to report by year’s end. They are also discrete, issuing no media statements at all. As far as the Crows know, the review has had just one mention in the policy press. [xi]

This is the way insiders always like it – they hate journalists asking questions not easily answered.

But it is also the feds preferred position. Reviews that demand much but do it discretely are much easier to either ignore or adopt without too many questions than unionist or scientists marching in the streets.

The Crows’ guess is that the feds will come up with cash in the next budget in response to McKeon’s findings now they know the research lobby will not be ignored. It will not be as much as the medicos want, but it will be a great deal more than the publishers, indeed Alcoa, got.

When it comes to powerful lobbies the principle of the pay-off is never in doubt – reviews exist to calibrate the cost. When the powerful speak governments abandon the Sybil subterfuge and really do know what they have to do.


[i] Carl Dickens, “Rescue for Alcoa smelter but jobs will go,” The Australian June 29

[ii] Australian Election Commission, Election 2010 @ http://results.aec.gov.au/15508/Website/HouseDivisionMenu-15508-VIC.htm recovered on July 1

[iii] Book Industry Strategy Group, Final report to government, September 2011 @ www.innovation.gov.au/INDUSTRY/BOOKSANDPRINTING/BOOKINDUSTRYSTRATEGYGROUP/Pages/default.aspx , 4

[iv] Department of Industry, innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Book industry strategy group: Government response (June 2012) @ http://www.innovation.gov.au/Industry/BooksandPrinting/BookIndustryStrategyGroup/Documents/BISGFinalReport.pdf recovered on July 1

[v] Amy Corderoy, “Research cuts put lives at risk, say medical institutes,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 7 2011

[vi] Gary L R Jennings, “Cuts to the NHMRC budget will undermine the health of all Australians – today and in the future,” Medical Journal of Australia (August 2011) www.mja.com.au/journal/2011/194/9/cuts-nhmrc-budget-will-undermine-health-all-australians-today-and-future recovered on July 1

[vii] Stephen Matchett, “Medical research: the huge cost of hope,” The Common Room, August 17 2011 @ http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/thecommonroom/index.php/theaustralian/comments/medical_researchthe_huge_cost_of_hope/ recovered on July 1

[viii] Judith Sloan, “Rent seekers come on down: from the world of medical research,” April 19 2011 @ http://catallaxyfiles.com/2011/04/19/rent-seekers-come-on-down-from-the-world-of-medical-research/ recovered on July 1, Productivity Commission, Impacts of advances in medical technology in Australia,(2005) @ www.pc.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/17193/medicaltechnology.pdf recovered on July 1

[ix] Research Australia, Shaping up: trends and statistics in funding health and medical research (July 2011) 43 @ http://researchaustralia.org/Publications Trends and Stats/RA TRENDS REPORT_FINAL_19_07.pdf recovered on July 1

[x] “Strategic review of health and medical research,” @ www.mckeonreview.org.au/9903/Home/ recovered on July 1

[xi] James Chessell, “Battle for funds always raging,” Australian Financial Review, May 7