12 April 2011

Budget Cuts Threaten Australian Medical Research Funding

It is ‘budget season’ once again here in Australia – the time of year when government ‘sources’ start to leak like sieves with information regarding proposed measures in the (supposedly) confidential annual accounting to be announced by the Treasurer in May.

This year, we are greatly concerned by reports that the Australian government is considering slashing the budget for medical research funding by nearly 20%.  This is a disturbing and short-sighted proposal when the Australian economy remains strong, relative to our major trading partners, and medical research is one of the nation’s great strengths.  Australian contributions to medical research and innovation include antibiotics (Howard Florey), the use of lithium to treat psychiatric disorders (John Cade), the ‘bionic ear’ (Graeme Clark) and the cervical cancer vaccine (Ian Frazer), amongst many others.

Why, then, would the nation put this great legacy at risk to achieve short-term political gains?  If you find this as unacceptable as we do, please read on to learn more, and to find out how you can contribute to the various campaigns opposing the proposed cuts.


Most of the leaks that occur at this time of year are unofficially authorised.  They are used either to ‘soften up’ the community for the harsh news to come, or to road test a few possible measures to see how they play in the electorate.  It is therefore difficult to tell how many of the leaked proposals will actually be reflected in the final budget next month.

One thing that seems certain this year, however, is that we are in for a tough budget, although it is difficult to understand why this should be the case.  Australia sailed through the ‘global financial crisis’ virtually unscathed.  In fact, relatively speaking the Australian economy has never been stronger, and the Australian dollar is sitting at unprecedented levels against its US, European and UK counterparts.  While this is not necessarily a great thing for exporters of goods and services (including patent attorneys), it can hardly be said, on balance, to be a bad thing for the nation.

But the problem is that Australia was cushioned against the global downturn, in part, by a big injection of cash into the economy by the government.  Again, not necessarily a bad thing, considering that much of the spending was directed to infrastructure projects that have helped to maintain employment, and which will have ongoing benefits in the longer term.

However, years of fiscal restraint have resulted in an obsession with budget surpluses.  Governments now fear that they will be seen as unelectable failures if they run a budget deficit for more than twenty consecutive minutes!  Despite the costs of the GFC ‘bailout’, and of providing support to communities devastated by floods and tropical storms over summer, the present government remains committed to returning the budget to surplus in 2012/13, largely in order to avoid potentially damaging criticism from the opposition (see, e.g., recent reports in The Age newspaper, Budget Surplus, Whatever it Takes and Giant Tax Hole Sets Up Savage Budget).


The likelihood that medical research funding could be hit hard by cuts in the 2011 budget appears to have first emerged about a month ago (see, e.g., article in the Adelaide Advertiser, Brace for Higher Medicine Costs).

The figure that is being discussed is a potential $400 million cut ($133 million annually, or around 19%) to the funding provided via the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which currently distributes around $700 million each year to university, and other public sector, researchers.

We do not think that we can put the case against these proposed cuts any better than it is argued in a message currently being circulated by the ICT for Life Sciences Forum, the content of which is reproduced below.

Australia has a long and proud medical research history, which, alongside our minerals and agricultural research, has an international reputation for excellence and impact.  Australia's medical research community has made many contributions to improving human health and wellbeing across the world and companies such as Cochlear, ResMed, CSL, among others, were created as a direct result of our investment in medical research spanning many decades. 

Funding for medical research is critical to developing Australia's highly skilled talent pool and future research leaders who will contribute to breakthroughs that will benefit mankind.  Medical research is expensive with uncertain outcomes.  Nevertheless, its return in purely economic terms alone makes it vital that funding is not cut.  It contributes to a healthy population which underpins our economy and standard of living.  Making medical research subject to cyclical budgetary fluctuations does not make good sense.  In a competitively global environment, cutting existing levels of medical research in Australia will only serve to weaken our global reputation and the ability to retain our leading researchers, it will affect our first access to new treatments and new medical breakthroughs.  It will also impact Australia's ability to create new companies, highly skilled jobs and generate exports. 

If you care about medical research and/or feel strongly about the proposed cuts to medical research, there are actions you can take now to make your feelings known to the Australian Government:
  1. support the Rally for Research [in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra on Tuesday, 12 April, and Perth on Thursday, 14 April];
  2. support the Get Up! campaign;
  3. sign the i-Petition to the Australian Government being organized by Research Australia, and;
  4. support the Facebook and Twitter campaigns.
If you are concerned about this issue, please lend your support to one of these campaigns, or contact directly your local federal member of parliament (if you are in Australia), or any one of the other influential politicians whose contact details are provided on the Discoveries Need Dollars web site.


Further coverage in The Age newspaper, 12 April 2011:
  1. Cuts and Bruises, by Jo Chandler
  2. Beware false savings in medical research, Editorial
  3. Medical research cuts will push scientific stars into exile, by Peter Doherty (winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine)
  4. Hidden cost in slashing medical research, by Dr Christine Bennett and Peter Wills (Research Australia)


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