Time for a spending revolution

Australia's medical researchers have called on the main political parties to adopt the advice of a key review to boost research spending and revolutionise the way funds are allocated.

The McKeon review, handed to Health Minister Tanya Plibersek last week, is a 10-year plan for the health and medical research sector – the first blueprint it has had since the Wills five-year funding plan expired in 2005.

Commissioned by the Gillard government after the high-profile fight against feared cuts to research funding in the 2011-2012 federal budget, the yet to be released report calls for an additional $2-$3 billion a year to be invested in the sector within a decade.

It argues the country's research activities need to be better managed to improve the effect medical research has on people's health, particularly as the population ages.

In a rare display of outspokenness, the heads of some of the country's top universities and research institutes have called on the government and opposition to adopt the findings, which include the creation of 1000 fellowships for doctors so they can devote half their time to research.

Geoffrey Donnan, director of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, said health and medical researchers were united in their support for the review's findings.

He said the recommendations would give direction and focus to the sector, which had been drifting since the Wills report expired.

Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty said in a climate where research institutes, hospitals and universities were required to function as businesses rather than "a public good entity", a blueprint which placed a value on research was vital.

The 15-month review also calls for the country's main medical research funding body, the National Health and Medical Research Council, to increase the size and duration of grants which currently run for an average of three years.

"They are spending far too much time writing and not enough time doing," Professor Donnan said.

The concerns are echoed by Doug Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and Jim McClusky, Melbourne University deputy vice-chancellor and head of research, who note that about 75 per cent of all grants written went unfunded.

"Melbourne University would put in 500 NHMRC project grants and each one takes at least 120 hours to prepare and 350 of them will not be funded," Professor McClusky said.

Chaired by former Australian of the year and CSIRO board chairman Simon McKeon, the report also recommends the establishment of up to 20 research centres to encourage hospitals, universities and research institutes to collaborate on research.

Health and medical research has had significant capital investment across the country. At Melbourne's Parkville precinct – which accounts for 27 per cent of NHMRC funding – building works worth $3 billion have either been completed or are due for completion by 2014.

Due to open later this year is the $200 million South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, a $200 million project spread over two campuses.

The $180 million Queensland Institute of Medical Research opened last December and a $354 million Translational Research Institute is also being built in Brisbane. But the buildings are nothing without funded researchers working in them, Professor Hilton said: "Buildings don't make discoveries."

A spokesman for Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the government would consider the report. He added there was no reason to fear the report would be lost in pre-election activities.

Shadow health minister Peter Dutton urged the government to release the report.

The story Time for a spending revolution first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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