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Australian Panel Calls for Major Changes in Nation's Biomedical Research

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

An Australian advisory panel is suggesting sweeping changes to the nation's biomedical research programs in order to better link science to health care—along with a hefty spending boost. But the recommendations, released today, come as the Australian government is reportedly considering a freeze on research grants as part of austerity plans.

In its report, the committee—called the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research in Australia—argues that at least 3% of government spending on health care should be dedicated to science. The effort should include creating 1000 new fellowships that would allow clinicians to spend one-half of their time on research, and founding up to 20 new biomedical research centers. The cost of those initiatives could be more than offset by producing more efficient care, the report notes. And "[e]mbedding research into health care will ensure government investment in research benefits all Australians—through better health outcomes—and delivers the greatest economic value," panel chair Simon McKeon wrote in blog post announcing the release of the 34-page draft plan and on The Conversation, an Australian web site that covers science policy issues. McKeon is a prominent former banker and chair of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, its main agency for science funding.

The Australian government created McKeon's panel in late 2011, asking it to develop a 10-year health and medical research plan for the nation. It held more than 70 meetings to get input and ultimately produced 21 recommendations on everything from funding to training. McKeon writes that they include:

  • Investing at least 3% of Australian and state and territory government health expenditure (an additional A$2bn to A$3bn per year by mid 2023) to drive research activity within the health system as an embedded component of the Australian government's health reforms

  • Establishing "Integrated Health Research Centres" combining hospital networks, universities and medical research institutes to create globally relevant centres of excellence and drive translation of research into clinical practice

  • Creating up to 1,000 competitive practitioner fellowships for leading clinicians that protects 50% of their time to further embed research within patient care

  • Supporting focused research based on priorities of immediate clinical relevance to Australians, and in key areas such as Indigenous health, rural and remote health, and application of genomics to personalised medicine

  • Maintaining research excellence by making research a more attractive career path with improvements in people support, career flexibility and granting processes, and by strategic investment in infrastructure such as biobanks and data linkage networks

  • Advancing clinical trials, public health research and health services research

  • Providing clear pathways to translate research evidence into clinical practice, including a matching Translational Development Fund for early stage development and commercialisation

  • Incentivising high end philanthropy to invest in identified health priorities

The plan is getting a good reception from research groups. "We particularly applaud the panel's recommendation to increase public sector investment in research over the next decade," Brendan Crabb, president-elect for the Association for Australian Medical Research Institutes, told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. "It's clear the review panel have got the message that there are things to be fixed," Darren Saunders, cancer biologist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Darlinghurst, Australia, told The Conversation. "The big question is how it will be implemented—that's going to be the real challenge."

The public now has until 31 October to comment on the plan, which will ultimately be presented to the Australian government.

Posted in Health