AAMRI President address to the 2017 AAMRI Dinner

AAMRI President address to the 2017 AAMRI Dinner

Photographed at the AAMRI dinner event in the Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra. 6 December 2017. Photo: Bradley Cummings



Professor Tony Cunningham AO (AAMRI President) speech to the AAMRI Annual Dinner, Parliament House, 6 December 2017 (Transcript)

Firstly, I wish to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet we meet and pay respect to their elders, past and present.

I would like to start by thanking all our special guests and our parliamentarians for joining us here to celebrate Australian medical research, especially Minister Hunt, Assistant Ministers Gillespie, Shadow Ministers Carr and King and leader of the Greens Richard DiNatale. I would also like to thank CSL for their generosity in supporting this evening’s dinner. They are a truly great Australian company.

It was about 80 years ago that the first meeting of the NHMRC Council was convened. At this meeting, it was decided how to disperse 30,000 pounds, the equivalent of about $2 million in today’s money. How times have changed. Since then successive Australian Governments have substantially increased investment, growing the sector, so that we now stand tall amongst the best medical research nations in the world.

That investment has allowed our medical research institutes to make some of the most amazing discoveries:

  • 20 million people with leukaemia have benefitted from being treated with colony stimulating factors discovered at the Walter and Eliza Hall institute
  • Discovery of folate deficiency as a cause of spina bifida at the Telethon Kids Institute has led to its minimization through food supplements with this essential vitamin
  • Australian research discovered the link between babies sleeping on their tummies and SIDS. Since this discovery, the number of babies dying from SIDS has decrease markedly.
  • And this year, there was a most spectacular achievement Institute, where a $400 million agreement was signed for the new anti-leukaemia drug, venetoclax, also discovered and developed at WEHI. It now offers hope to thousands around the world.

These are many more such discoveries.

These great outcomes are just the tip of the ice-berg. They need to be. We spend over $155 billion every year on healthcare in Australia! And this will only grow with an ageing population. The best way that we can tackle burgeoning healthcare expenditure is with smarter, research led solutions. Clearly we need to stop spending money on treatments, tests and procedures that provide little benefit or, in some cases, cause harm. We need more evidence-based medicine, with researchers working alongside healthcare professionals, by bringing our healthcare and research systems closer together and using our research in a smarter and more integrated way. We also need to relieve the logjam in the innovation pipeline so we can get our research discoveries out of the labs and helping patients much more quickly.

However we are now making progress, with initiatives like the NHMRC’s Australian Health Research Translation Centres, the building of research precincts, and new clinician-scientist fellowships. Research is now being driven not only by scientists’ ideas but also by the needs of patients, which is exactly how it should be.

For a clinician-scientist like myself, who has pushed research links with health services and universities, this is very exciting. Too frequently stretched healthcare budgets have meant that research was seen as a luxury that hospital managers couldn’t afford. Research is not a luxury, it is the only way we can keep healthcare costs down and deliver new treatments that people need to overcome fatal or debilitating diseases. Debilitating diseases that prevent people from being able to work, provide for their family, and enjoy life.

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to make this happen. The Medical Research Future Fund is set to double the Government’s investment in medical research, expanding strategic research and complementing Australia’s world-class, outstanding investigator-led research, funded by NHMRC. With the MRFF we now have the support to do much more of the strategic research our healthcare system needs, and expedite the journey of our best discoveries from the lab to the clinic.

This year the Medical Research Future Fund has really progressed. It is now a third of the way to its $20 billion target, and is already funding new clinical trials, and backing clinical and public health researchers with the fellowships and the research investment they need. We thank the Government for delivering on the promise. Furthermore we thank all the MPs, on all sides, across the Parliament for your bipartisan support for the Fund’s legislation. Many are here tonight. Thank you to our friend and tireless advocate who we sadly lost earlier this year, Connie Johnson, who passionately campaigned with us in this building. But most importantly, thank you to the community, the funders of the Medical Research Future Fund. You’ve put your faith in us, and we will deliver, as in the past.

I’m sure Minister Hunt would agree, that when you announce a $20 billion fund there’s more than a few people knocking on your door telling you how to spend it. There’s thousands of worthy projects and ideas. So we should all be grateful for the tireless work of Ian Frazer and the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board, who put together a prioritized strategy for the Fund by working with the sector and government.

We also congratulate the Government on the investments made to date. We are delighted to see the high degree of contestability for the new funding schemes announced, many through NHMRC peer review processes. Competition is what makes our sector stronger and makes sure our precious investment is made where it will be most effective, involving Australia’s best research groups.

Inevitably, there will be early winners from the Fund. These might be disease areas, disciplines or institutes that get a funding boost. Other areas might have to wait a bit longer. However if you’re not one of these don’t despair. We are one-third of the way to getting the Fund to its full $20 billion, and we are only going to get there with everyone’s full support.

Indeed we have but one opportunity to support the Medical Research Future Fund to reach its full potential and maintain the political and community momentum behind it. If successful, we will have years of opportunities ahead of us to put the Fund to work and use such research to meet the health challenges facing Australia.

Before we all get back to enjoying our dinner I’d just like to say two more things. I’m delighted to announce that the next AAMRI President-elect is Professor Steve Wesselingh from SAHMRI. Steve will take over as President of AAMRI in November next year. This is great as I can now offload the o organization of AAMRI’s 25th birthday next year. Just kidding Steve!

I would also like to pay tribute to our wonderful and wise Board and outstanding staff, Peter Thomas, our policy director, and the two Katherines. They make my job easy and Peter’s networking, understanding and savvy common sense are of great value to the whole research sector

Thank you, and please enjoy your evening.