Stone the crows! The government is back in the winner-picking business.

Industry minister Ian Macfarlane’s industry policy is imminent and one of the things he wants is for government to support growth industries backed by applied academic research in “agribusiness, mining technology, energy, oil and gas, advanced manufacturing and medical technologies.” He adds, “The challenge for Australia is to nurture those strengths and run with them. Our goal must be to connect businesses and researchers to make Australian businesses globally competitive with new ideas and new products.” [i]

And if anybody worries this looks like government deciding what will work for Australia, don’t worry, as Mr Macfarlane explained, “Let me scotch any suggestion this is akin to the government picking winners. It’s not. With or without government involvement, Australia already has several key areas in which we have a competitive edge.”[ii] Except one of the nominated winners Minister Macfarlane is not picking would not exist without government funding – medical research.

And there is lots of it; in 2004 the National Health and Medical Research Council funded 2756 new and continuing grants worth $340m, last year there were 4386 grants worth $805m.[iii] In contrast, the Australian Research Council which funds everything else (including some health programs) had $571m in 2005 and $919m this year. [iv]

Medicine’s share of overall research funding will increase even more if the government’s proposal for a Medical Research Future Fund gets up. Certainly the possibility of a $20bn endowment funded by a GP visit co-payment is looking unlikely to pass the Senate, but Health Minister Peter Dutton says a smaller MRFF could be funded from portfolio savings.[v]

And of course all MRFF money should be additional to existing funding. According to NHMRC chief Warwick Anderson, “The new funding should be available for such things as the infrastructure around research, registers of diseases, collection of specimens, development of ideas and a degree of commercialisation assistance. I think the population has an expectation of both health and wealth from medical funding.”[vi]

Not, you understand, that this is picking potential winners, as the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group explains, “Medical research is Australia’s best knowledge industry, employing 23,000 research professionals supporting a medicines industry of over 40,000. Annually, Australia now exports $4 billion worth of products developed through medical research, making it Australia’s largest high technology export industry.”[vii]

Good, oh, except researchers are largely on the public sector payroll and the exports are not necessarily the result of Australian science. As Professor Anderson acknowledges, “Only a small amount of this export is the direct product of Australian health and medical research, but I’m equally certain that we wouldn’t have such a vibrant sector if we didn’t have such a vibrant and quality medical research sector.”[viii]

But not to worry, medical researchers are making a motza for us, demonstrated by a claim in a research paper for the McKeon review on medical research spending: “Even though there is large uncertainty surrounding the inputs, there is a 90 per cent chance that the net benefits from Australian R&D lie in the range $3.9 billion to $59.1 billion that the return on investment from Australian R&D is between 15.6 per cent and 234.4 per cent [ix]

With “large uncertainty surrounding the inputs” and a 210 per cent range between lowest (but still outstanding) and highest rate of return cynics could suggest this is not exactly bankable data, but what can you expect from cynics?

As for whether medical research is the best use of public funds – few ever ask the question

And those that do get ticked-off in short order. When the Crows, wearing a different beak, suggested the NHMRC was privileged at the expense of other disciplines medical researchers wrote in telling me I would change my caw when stricken with beak-rot, into which Australian research was outrageously underfunded.

The political reality is that data does not matter – while the Crows cannot find it there must be a clause in the constitution guaranteeing ever-extending life, with the taxpayer picking up the cost of curing whatever ails us.

The prime minister certainly knows about that. Before the last election Mr Abbott explicitly committed to not cutting medical research, which turned out to mean other fields would take a hit to keep medicos in the money.[x]

Even the Commission of Audit, while wanting more effective use of the medical research budget did not question its size, suggests the NHMRC and ARC cooperate, “while keeping the medical research funding pool separate.”[xi]

Leaders in other research disciplines also accept that the medicos are all but untouchable. Thus Tony Peacock, who runs the Cooperative Research Centres Association, writes:

I feel many medical research people are being almost too polite about the fact that medical research is getting singled out. As a non-medical researcher, I personally don’t have concerns that medical research is getting singled out – I’m thinking of it as ‘first cab off the rank’ instead. Yes, in the coming CRC Review, we will be making the case as strongly as possible that the CRC Program needs a boost – but I don’t see that as a reason for not getting behind the MRFF.[xii]

Perhaps this is less generosity than reality given governments decided long ago that medical research was a winner to pick, and pick again. After all, no amount of argument about the opportunity cost of spending up on medicine at the expense of everything else will ever be as popular as the always hoped for headline “Australian breakthrough in search cure for cancer”. Unlikely to be sure, but it is a hell of a lot better than the guaranteed headline if medical research is reduced, “government cuts rule out Australian cancer cure”.

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[i] Ian Macfarlane, “Australia’s competitive edge in the industries of the future: address to the Sydney Institute” September 9 @ recovered on September 28

[ii] Macfarlane ibid

[iii] National Health and Medical Research Council, Research funding datasets 1990-2013, May 26 @ recovered on September 28

[iv] Australian Research Council, Agency Resources 2005-06 @, Agency Resources 2014-15 @ recovered on September 28

[v] Matthew Knott and Fergus Hunter, “Medical research fund should not be political football, say experts,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 16

[vi] Prue Moodie, “Getting the research funding balance right,” Australian Financial Review, July 30

[vii] Association of Medical Research Institutes, “New MRFF advocates for the most important initiative in Australian medical research in generations,” August 31 @ recovered on September 28

[viii] Warwick Anderson, “Healthy, wealthy and affordable: how research can improve Australia’s health system,” NHMRC, June 14 @ recovered on September 28

[ix] Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research in Australia, Commissioned Research Paper 3: cost/benefit analysis of investments in health and medical research , February 22 2012 @ recovered on September 28

[x] Tony Abbott, Address to the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference, February 28 2013 @ recovered on September 28

[xi] Commission of Audit, Appendix to the report of the National Commission of Audit, s10.2 Research and development February 14 @ recovered on September 28

[xii] (quoted in) Stephen Matchett, “Second Opinion,” Campus Morning Mail, September 19 @