Missed opportunity for fair and transparent funding for research

Missed opportunity for fair and transparent funding for research

9th May, 2016

The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) welcomes the announcement that the Federal Government has adopted the main recommendations of the Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements (the Watt Review), but says that the reforms do not go far enough in addressing the inequitable treatment of medical research institutes (MRIs) and hospitals in government funding for research.

AAMRI President, Professor Doug Hilton, said that the Watt Review focussed on research policy and funding arrangements of the Higher Education sector, but the reality is that the research sector is much broader than this, and a whole-of-government approach is needed for a consistent and transparent funding system.

“There is an ongoing issue in the Australian research policy debate that sometimes sees MRIs, hospitals and other publicly-funded research organisations outside of the Higher Education sector overlooked in research funding reform, despite the integral role these organisations play in Australia’s research sector,” said Professor Hilton.

“This has resulted in MRIs and hospitals being disadvantaged when it comes to Federal Government funding for research overheads (or indirect costs), a frustration for the sector for more than two decades.”

Professor Hilton said that despite the focus of the Watt Review on the Higher Education sector, it did comment on the inequitable funding arrangements for MRIs compared with universities, suggesting that the Government: “work to resolve the current complex and seemingly inequitable indirect cost support arrangements to determine how to achieve a level playing field for researchers that is independent of their host institution.”

“This recognises that the Federal Government funds research overheads at different rates depending on whether a researcher is from a university, MRI, hospital or other publicly-funded research organisation. Also, unlike universities, MRIs and hospitals do not receive any funding to reward excellence, industry engagement, or the diversification of research income from other sources,” Professor Hilton said.

“The reality is that the research sector is highly interconnected. So while the adopted Watt Review recommendations around intellectual property, research translation and streamlining of funding for the indirect costs (or overheads) of research for the Higher Education sector are big improvements, by overlooking other parts of the research sector, major inconsistencies, inequality and red tape remain.

“This entrenched inequality divides the research community, breeds mistrust among organisations that rely on collaboration to succeed, threatens the sustainability of MRIs, and drives research out of our hospitals, hampering efforts to translate research from bench to bedside and improve our health system.”

Professor Hilton said that while funding for the indirect costs of research could be a dry and esoteric subject, it was at the heart of the future of health and medical research in Australia.

“We’re talking about costs as simple as electricity bills and administration staff, none of which are covered by government research grants and are only partially met by a range of other government schemes,” he said.

“The concurrent implementation of the Watt Review and Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) is an important opportunity to take a whole-of-government view to this fundamental issue for the research sector, and I am confident that the Government will develop a more equitable system of funding for research at Australia’s universities, MRIs and hospitals in the future.”

Media Contact: Rebecca Thorpe, 0401 419 590, rebecca.thorpe@aamri.org.au.