Memo to Canberra: hands off the $20bn research fund

Memo to Canberra: hands off the $20bn research fund

27th March, 2019

Professor Vlado Perkovic

Originally published in The Australian, Higher Education Commentary, 27 March 2019

Funding promises are the stuff of federal elections. Plenty will be made in coming weeks as we ­approach the big day.

While there are so many worthy and important areas in need of investment, I just hope our politicians resist the temptation to do so by redirecting funds from the Medical Research Future Fund to pay for them.

Doing so would rob vast numbers of Australians affected by terrible intractable diseases, and their families, of opportunities for better outcomes. And the hope that a cure and a better life will one day happen for them.

This federal election the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes is calling on all of our politicians to make sure that medical research continues to be a top policy and funding priority for any future Australian government. Australia is building up a world-leading $20 billion medical research sovereign wealth fund, the MRFF.

This amount sounds like a lot, and it will more than double the medical research funding in Australia. In addition, once capitalised, it will fund itself. But it represents only about 0.5 per cent of healthcare expenditure. The fund is not a “nice to have”, but is a necessity for Australians in order to achieve appropriate health ­outcomes.

This fund is halfway to being fully funded and is set to deliver amazing results for all Australians. Already it is funding new medical research into cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rare cancers and brain injury, and allowing some of our best and brightest clinicians to find better ways to prevent and treat these and other conditions.

But the big worry from the medical research sector is whether the plan to fully capitalise the MRFF will be delivered.

When it was established, the fund was supported by all sides of politics. It continues to be publicly supported both in parliament and beyond. In fact, a recent Roy Morgan poll found that nearly nine in 10 Australians supported the development of the MRFF.

The MRFF has been steadily building over the past few years and to date $10bn has been invested in the fund, supporting critical new medical research. But just after the next federal election, the second from last (and largest) payment into the MRFF is due.

Politicians should resist the temptation to dip into this to pay for promises they’ve made elsewhere.

If this happens, it is a mistake that we could regret for years to come as we already invest far too little in medical research. Far too little given the enormous health challenges we face, and far too ­little given the great economic ­returns it delivers.

The MRFF can revolutionise Australia’s healthcare. For the first time it would allow us to invest strategically at the national level to fully integrate world-class medical research within our health system, from which it has for too long been disconnected. We’ll be able to develop a continuously improving, learning healthcare system in Australia, making us the envy of the world.

Putting off MRFF capitalisation could see this once-in-a-generation opportunity lost forever as it gets kicked out into a distant future that might never come about.

Our past investment in medical research has delivered indisputable value for money — with KPMG calculating it has delivered $4 of economic benefit for every dollar invested. It has dramatically improved outcomes for people suffering from a range of diseases. Our researchers are world leaders, being recognised for life-changing discoveries and our ability to deliver from bench to bedside.

So far in 2019 alone our country’s brightest have announced a faster, more efficient type of radiotherapy treatment with less side effects, a world-first clinical trial of a new cellular immunotherapy for MS, 3D printed ears from stem cells for children with deformities, vaccines to fight food allergies and technology to test hearing in ­babies using their heartbeat.

But there are thousands of other discoveries out there that we need to invest in so they can be rolled out and made available to patients.

I urge our politicians to do the right thing and deliver what so many in the community want, and so many in the community need, a fully funded MRFF by 2020-21.

Vlado Perkovic is president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes and executive director of The George Institute for Global Health, Australia.