Better-funded science can avoid health crises. Here’s why.

Better-funded science can avoid health crises. Here’s why.

Dr Roger Yazbek, Democrats Health Campaigner

The covid-19 pandemic has exposed just how fragile the global economy is. In a matter of days, the world was turned on its head.  It is humbling to consider that a global population of 7 billion people can be brought to a standstill by a virus particle a fraction of the size of the smallest bacterium. Major cities have transformed from bustling metropolises into apocalyptic ghost towns, millions of people that once freely traveled the world are now isolating in their homes to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Small business operators, major retail outlets, aviation, tourism, and housing industries all face uncertain futures, with shutdowns already forcing some businesses to close for good.

In the face of a public health crisis, Scott Morrison and his Ministers have appeared more concerned with political spin rather than prioritising the health and well-being of Australians. While the response has necessarily evolved daily, once the pandemic is over, serious questions must be asked of how the Morrison Government has handled the crisis. Confused messaging and communication to the Australian public, failures to earlier implement and enforce social distancing guidelines, and failure to have a defined economic plan in response to a pandemic are amongst just some of the major issues that this Government must be accountable for. 

For too long, successive Australian Governments have focussed almost exclusively on economic growth, building individual wealth and budget surpluses, neglecting what matters most, people. We must start looking for solutions and identifying strategies to mitigate the effects of future health challenges that Australia will certainly face, whether it is another pandemic, health challenges related to climate change, or Australia’s ageing population. Australia must emerge from this pandemic with a clearly defined and sustainable plan to significantly lift its investment into the core pillars of health, education and scientific research. 

It will not be economists or private industry that rescues Australia from this pandemic crisis, it will be the nation’s scientists, doctors, nurses, public and allied health professionals, epidemiologists and educators who are the face of the health response, and who will see Australia through this troubled time. 

If there is anything the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted more clearly than anything, it is that Australia has neglected to properly fund the country’s scientists. 

Over many decades, Australia has built a health and medical research workforce that has produced 11 Nobel Prize winners in areas related to health and medicine, as well as gifting the world the HPV vaccine, cochlear implants, IVF, the Rotavirus vaccine and the foundational work in immunology that has transformed cancer treatment. These are only a snapshot of the many discoveries Australian researchers have made. Australia should rightly be tremendously proud of its scientists. 

As we confront the covid-19 crisis, it will be health and medical research that will underpin drug discovery, vaccine development and new medical devices to support patient care and treatment. At a time when health and medical research is more critical than ever, a decade of underinvestment has Australia exposed. Just last year, Australia’s spending on research and development plummeted to 1.79% of GDP, well below the OECD average of 2.37% for developed nations, and the lowest it has been in Australia since 2008. 

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is an independent statutory body who, for more than 70 years, through rigorous and transparent oversight, administered funding for Australia’s medical research sector. However, since 2011, the Australian Government has failed to support NHMRC research funding. In fact, the NHMRC budget has been flat for 10 years, decreasing in real terms when the true costs of research are factored into the equation. 

What has this meant for Australian health and medical researchers? Last year alone, almost 600 research funding applications that were deemed worthy of funding by expert review went unfunded due to lack of investment by Government. This represents a loss of potential new treatments for cancer or heart disease, lost knowledge and understanding and lost potential for Australia. To put the numbers into perspective, the USA spends approximately $207 per person on health and medical research just through its National Institutes of Health. In contrast, Australia spends approximately $32 per person through the NHMRC. 

While the Government is now throwing millions of dollars at research teams around the country in the hopes of accelerating drug and vaccine development, it is too little too late. Research is not an overnight, ‘wham bam, here’s your cure’ endeavour. We must ask, why have we not been seriously funding medical research activity before now. Why have we been investing so much into the training and development of young scientists, only to have them move overseas to work, or leave science altogether. Why has this Government continued to ignore the significant return on investment generated by the NHMRC and failed to invest in this critical funding body? 

As the Government contemplates how to reignite the economy and safe-guard Australia’s biosecurity, serious consideration must be given to developing a long-term investment model for science, particularly medical research. 

Investing in health and medical research generates proven returns across multiple economic pillars, reduced healthcare costs, improved and increased productivity, and increased export growth. NHMRC funded research has saved billions of dollars in health system costs due to increased well-being. A 2016 report by Deloitte Access Economics highlights the health and economic returns generated from health and medical research, concluding that for every $1 invested, there is an average return of $3.20 in health and economic benefits.

A stimulus package focussed on Australian science and medical research would not only improve health outcomes and better prepare Australia against future health threats, it will facilitate new economic niches. Commercialising research outcomes will bring local and foreign investment dollars, creating a self-fulfilling cycle, and ensuring Australia reaps the rewards of home-grown innovation. The ‘spin-offs’ from investing in medical research are also significant, with hospitality, aviation, tourism, restaurants all standing to benefit. 

When Australia emerges from the covid-19 pandemic, Government must be strategic about how we rebuild our economy. It is all too easy to say that we must curb spending and reduce debt; however, this will only place Australia at risk as we will inevitably face future health challenges. Sustainable investment into science, health and medical research as one of our economic pillars will propel Australia as the global leader in health innovation, with new discoveries driving significant economic returns, and more importantly, improving health outcomes for millions of people in Australia and around the world. 

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

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