The National Times released a survey last week stating that 12% of people don't think we should protect medical research funding from federal budget cuts in May. This suggests Gillard's proposal to cut $400 million out of the $715 million National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) budget is good politics. I want to argue it is bad policy. The Prime Minister told us at the Sydney Institute annual dinner recently that she is an advocate for creating jobs and increasing workforce participation. Cuts to medical research not only undermine this. The NH&MRC lays the groundwork for the kind of health system we want, a better education sector, and our chance to be an internationally competitive, value-adding economy.
Medical research is not cheap but the stakes are high. Every dollar goes a long way. In 2006 as a medical intern I watched a young woman die from cancer of the lip. There were no obvious reasons for her death. She was not a smoker or a drinker. Now, we not only know what caused it. We are on the way to eradicating this disease. Work done by Professor Ian Frazer and his team at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research helped develop the vaccine against human papilloma virus, which causes oral and cervical cancer. Australia led the world in rolling out the vaccine to young women. For those people who have not been vaccinated, other Australian researchers, such as Dr Angela Hong at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, are designing individualised treatment for patients with these types of cancers.
Saving lives is not the only reason to invest in medical research. As part of their Equality for Women policy, the Australian Labour Party wants 'practical steps to improve workplace flexibility'. Ms Gillard take note - medical research employs a very large number of women, and they would benefit enormously from just a little government support.
Women represent more than 50% of young researchers but career progression is difficult. This is because the most formative years in the lab – the mid-thirties – are structured around 2-3 year contracts.
That is exactly when women need flexibility to start a family. The current President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Suzanne Cory, has advocated for support during the dip in women's 'M' shaped careers. In the UK and US formal programs exist to provide financial assistance for childcare and flexible work arrangements. The Australian Government should be providing that here, so women can continue to contribute their skills and knowledge over their lifetime.
Finally, I don't claim to be an economist. But it strikes me as short-sighted to cut funding from a profession that aspires to make health care more affordable. For example, many people argue that new therapies for cancer are too expensive and should not be covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This is because they only work in a small proportion of patients. That is the wrong way of looking at the problem. If medical researchers can develop techniques to more accurately diagnose which patients benefit from treatment and which patients don't, public resources spent on cancer treatment can be used more efficiently.
The National Health and Medical Research Council is the economic lifeline to Australia's medical research community. Cutting its funding not only hurts hard working researchers. It hurts the wider community. The Prime Minister should really ask herself whether she would be building a better, healthier country if she stripped the NH&MRC of its financial resources.
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