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Good medicine needs industry backing

By Garry Jennings - posted Wednesday, 6 May 2009

That Australia is in recession has been accepted at an official level only recently, but industry has been affected by the global economic downturn for some time.

Beyond car and clothing manufacturing, there is another stalwart of the Australian economic landscape that is feeling the pinch and feeling it hard: our medical research, innovation and biotechnology industries.

For the past 10 years medical research has been supported by government. While our industry is hopeful of continued funding growth in the budget, it would be realistic to consider that with the pressures on the federal purse we may not see the growth that we rely on to continue our work.


It has always been the case that for every dollar in direct research funding from grants and other sources we receive, we must find about 60 cents to support the research that funding allows. There is some government support for some of these indirect costs but the gap is traditionally filled by philanthropy, commercial and investment income.

These are also the source of funds for some of the most exciting research, which risk-averse mainstream peer review funding agencies will not touch. The global and local financial insecurity has resulted in understandable caution by trusts and foundations.

Most philanthropic organisations have cut back their pledges by at least one third and some have even cut their grants this year by much more. While these donations were never a given, there is now a smaller pool of funds to compete for. Corporate philanthropy requires corporate profits. While individual giving generally stands up well during downturns, people can only give from what is left. In this environment medical research agencies and other non-profits are seeking alternate sources of income.

Big pharmaceutical companies are always on the lookout for something new. Teams of professional shoppers scour the literature and walk the labs of the public research institutes and universities, looking at the research we produce with a view to deciding what holds most commercial potential.

These shopping trips expose an unequal relationship. The pharmaceutical companies are much bigger and more powerful than we are, and they have unimaginably large budgets.

Medical researchers open the doors when the teams come shopping, because in general we want the same things. We both seek new knowledge to form a basis for new medicines that will stop people getting sick, or at least improve the quality of their lives.


But as it is such an unequal relationship, as academics we have to be pretty sure what we want out of the interaction before it takes place.

First, we treasure our independence. Our investigators follow their noses in a way that is only loosely aligned to a research strategy and owes more to the innate curiosity that drives them in their work. When they discover something new they publish it, providing their colleagues across the world with new platforms on which to build their own discoveries. No one knows exactly where this sometimes anarchic process is headed. This is how research works and in every sense it is independent of the interests of the people who provide the money that supports it: government, donor or commercial. No pharmaceutical company can or should influence this.

Second though, we are under great pressure to ensure our work is relevant. Curiosity driven we may be, medical researchers hope the discoveries we make will result in the production of a new drug technique or public policy that contributes towards a reduction in the human burden of the disease we are interested in.

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First published in The Australian on April 28, 2009.

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About the Author

Garry Jennings is director of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. He is the immediate past president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

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Baker IDI - Heart and Diabetes Institute FAQs: Plavix

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