Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Medical Research Cut?

By Stephen Luntz

Medical researchers have launched a campaign in response to rumours of large cuts to science funding in this year’s Budget.

A combination of election promises, commitments to return the Budget to surplus by 2013 and flood costs not covered by the proposed levy have left the federal government seeking expenditure savings. Numerous reports indicate that scientific research is a major target, with high-level reports of a $400 million cut to the National Health and Medical Research Council over 3 years.

The NHMRC’s annual budget is $700 million. A similar cut was mooted in 2008, but Prime Minister Kevin Rudd overruled the proposal. Australian Research Council funds are reportedly under similar threat, but it is medical researchers who have launched the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign, with an initial kick-off from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Numerous researchers have become involved, pointing out that already there is plenty of high quality medical research lacking funding. “The peer review system is very tough, and it assesses 40–50% of grant applications as first class research that should be funded no matter what,” says WEHI Director Prof Doug Hilton. “Currently about 20% get funded, so morale is low because you have to submit five applications to get one funded. If we drop much lower we will see good people walking away from the profession, as has happened in the [United] States.”

Hilton says he has no problems with the process the government is going through of considering where to make savings. “It’s our responsibility to get out and make the case,” he says.

Medical researchers have an advantage over other areas of science in the public relations stakes, and they are using it by drawing in non-scientists whose lives have been saved by cutting-edge research.

Hilton rejects the idea that research with the highest potential will simply move overseas. “The life-saving discoveries I am familiar with probably wouldn’t have been made elsewhere,” he says, noting that Australia’s reputation in medical science has seen clinical trials of promising overseas-designed drugs conducted here, giving patients early access.

The cuts come at a delicate time for global research. While the Obama Administration has greatly increased science funding in the USA, the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives has proposed cuts to the National Science Foundation. The situation for the National Institutes of Health is even more dire. Adjusted for inflation, funding has been falling since 2003, aside from a one-off burst as part of the Recovery Act.

In the UK, science funding has been affected by the current austerity program, but nowhere near as badly as other areas.

The fears for medical research in Australia coincide with the announcement that the Federal Government will no longer fund the Australian Academy of Science’s primary and high school science education programs.

Meanwhile, 2000 CSIRO staff at 43 sites took industrial action in late March over a pay dispute. “On pay, management’s offer of 3% per annum over the next 3–4 years does not cover rising living costs and means that CSIRO will struggle to retain and attract world-class staff,” said CSIRO Staff Association secretary Sam Popovski.