Funding for medical research: mainly smoke and mirrors

Joe Hockey said in his budget speech that the (proposed medical) research fund would eventually be ”the biggest medical research endowment fund in the world”.

Well, not quite. The Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the UK and established by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome that has an endowment of £13 billion ($23 billion) and as Joe admits, it will be some time before the Australian fund grows to be that size.

Not only that, there are claims from the government that research funded from this endowment will find a cure for cancer. This is a pretty dubious claim as the search for a cure for cancer began in earnest under Richard Nixon in the 1970s and we’ve still got a way to go. It’s also worth noting that Nixon also began the “war on drugs” which has been a spectacular policy failure.

But let’s have a look at some of the details of this magic pudding scheme. The government expects to be able to use $276m from fund earnings over three years “to fund critical medical research in the medium to long term”.

Let’s put this in perspective. This funding translates into around $90 million a year “in the medium to long term”. At present, Australia is spending approximately 2% of the $80 billion allocated to health for health and medical research. That’s around $160m a year. So it’s a significant increase but not one that is going to revolutionise medical research.

Britain’s Medical Research Council spent about £766m ($1.3bn) on medical research in 2012-13. In the US, the National Institutes of Health has granted a massive $30.1bn to allocate for research in 2014.

It’s great that there is an increase in medical research funding but it’s not really all that earth shattering, particularly in light of the point that former Labor minister Kim Carr makes: “They’ve taken $6.4bn out of higher education science and research. They think they can play this pea and thimble regime and claim there is something noble about what they are doing.”

And to put this in a broader perspective, this government has gutted research and development into climate change research and renewable energy. It’s great to talk about a better future for our children where there will be a cure for cancer as a result of this fund. But, in the long term, climate change represents a much greater threat to humanity than cancer and this government is doing nothing to develop the science that will help us deal with this problem.