Re­search rat­ings to help donors

A rat­ings sys­tem for med­i­cal re­search could soon be avail­able to help donors de­cide where to send their money. Sean Par­nell re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

PRO­FES­SOR War­wick An­der­son is a pow­er­ful and re­spected fig­ure in Aus­tralian med­i­cal re­search, one of a small band of gate­keep­ers in charge of mil­lions of dol­lars of gov­ern­ment fund­ing that will, ul­ti­mately, lead to break­throughs or just bro­ken hearts.

While the CEO of the Na­tional Health and Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil is con­fi­dent in the grant ap­pli­ca­tion and peer-re­view pro­cesses used by his or­gan­i­sa­tion, he has also been will­ing to have it tested by an in­ter­na­tional re­view panel, which is yet to re­port its find­ings.

An­der­son knows his or­gan­i­sa­tion needs to be a world leader if Aus­tralia is to re­tain its in­tel­lec­tual strength, and con­tinue to be trans­par­ent and ac­count­able if it is to re­tain the na­tion’s trust and the in­dus­try’s sup­port. He also knows fund­ing, both pub­lic and private, is a valu­able and lim­ited re­source that needs to be man­aged and dis­trib­uted wisely.

With that in mind, the NHMRC is pre­par­ing for one of the bold­est ven­tures its 72-year his­tory — open­ing its data­bases to the gen­eral pub­lic. Do­ing so might just spark a revo­lu­tion in the private fund­ing mar­ket, among the phi­lan­thropists, cor­po­ra­tions and ev­ery­day donors who give money to health char­i­ties and foun­da­tions or, if the NHMRC has its way, to the re­searchers di­rect.

‘‘ In a way we think we run a sort of rat­ings agency here, a Stan­dard and Poor’s for health; we have very ro­bust mech­a­nisms for analysing ap­pli­ca­tions for salary sup­port and re­search,’’ An­der­son says.

‘‘ We’re plan­ning and de­vel­op­ing a way of putting that in the pub­lic do­main. If peo­ple have an in­ter­est in mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, or chronic fa­tigue or heart fail­ure, they could then get ad­vice on the groups and in­di­vid­u­als that have re­ceived fund­ing from the NHMRC and have a triple-A rat­ing.’’

The NHMRC’s fund­ing for grants and on­go­ing pro­grams broke the half-bil­lion­dol­lar mark last year, when it had more than 3000 projects on its books. In 2007 it made de­ci­sions on $637 mil­lion in fund­ing, pro­vid­ing hope for the 1202 sci­en­tists and med­i­cal re­searchers who re­ceived new grants.

But the con­cept of open­ing up its data­bases, and, in par­tic­u­lar, rat­ing sci­en­tists and re­searchers in pub­lic, is likely to spark some con­tro­versy.

The pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian So­ci­ety for Med­i­cal Re­search, Mark Hulett, has mixed views, par­tic­u­larly be­ing a younger re­searcher him­self and know­ing that ‘‘ in Aus­tralia there’s not a lot of money to go around’’.

‘‘ What it will mean I guess is the money that peo­ple want to do­nate to par­tic­u­lar dis­ease re­search ar­eas will then pos­si­bly go to peo­ple who al­ready have a lot of money,’’ Hulett says.

‘‘ It’s likely to be utilised well, but the lesser achiever prob­a­bly misses out again.’’

La­bor’s fed­eral elec­tion win in Novem­ber, and the prom­ise of co-oper­a­tive fed­er­al­ism, her­alded a ma­jor re­form push in health. New fed­eral Health Min­is­ter Ni­cola Roxon, whose port­fo­lio re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude med­i­cal re­search, has moved to es­tab­lish a Na­tional Health and Hos­pi­tals Re­form Com­mis­sion and al­ready held sev­eral meet­ings with the states aimed at in­creas­ing, and bet­ter di­rect­ing, tax­payer fund­ing on the sys­tem.

An­der­son does not be­lieve the new com­mis­sion will du­pli­cate the work of the NHMRC, ex­pect­ing it to fo­cus more on the com­mon­wealth-state di­vide in the health sys­tem — but has adopted a ‘‘ wait and see’’ approach.

Yet with the Rudd Gov­ern­ment plac­ing such an em­pha­sis on fix­ing and bet­ter fund­ing the sys­tem within a con­ser­va­tive Bud­get frame­work, some sci­en­tists and med­i­cal re­searchers are won­der­ing whether fund­ing will be harder to come by.

A spokesman for Roxon of­fers only a care­fully worded re­sponse: ‘‘ Our in­ten­tion is to main­tain cur­rent lev­els of fund­ing for med­i­cal re­search, and of course we would look at ways to in­crease the fund­ing if the bud­get al­lows.’’

At the same time, the level of private fund­ing re­mains be­low com­pa­ra­ble in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, al­though the num­ber of Aus­tralians who give, and how much they give, is in­creas­ing.

The 2005 Giv­ing Aus­tralia study found that of the $5.7 bil­lion of phil­an­thropic giv­ing ev­ery year, $807 mil­lion — or 14.2 per cent — went to health and med­i­cal re­search.

A sub­se­quent Re­search Aus­tralia

re­port high­lighted how the av­er­age an­nual do­na­tion per donor to med­i­cal re­search was only $77 — far be­low re­li­gious or spir­i­tual or­gan­i­sa­tions ($529), in­ter­na­tional aid and de­vel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions ($234), arts/cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions ($220) and a range of oth­ers causes.

Of the $1.7 bil­lion in­vested in health and med­i­cal re­search in 2001 in to­tal — from gov­ern­ment and other sources — con­tri­bu­tions by Aus­tralian phi­lan­thropy ac­counted for just $216 mil­lion, or 12 per cent. The com­pa­ra­ble rate in the US, Canada and the United King­dom — all with con­sid­er­ably higher per capita to­tal in­vest­ments in health and med­i­cal re­search — was about 25-30 per cent.

Clearly, in­creas­ing that amount and mak­ing bet­ter use of the money is a ma­jor fo­cus of the med­i­cal re­search com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly if the in­crease in fund­ing un­der the Howard Gov­ern­ment plateaus now un­der the La­bor ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Since Novem­ber, Re­search Aus­tralia has em­ployed a phi­lan­thropy de­vel­op­ment man­ager in Rikki An­drews, whose job is es­sen­tially to in­crease the amount of money do­nated to med­i­cal re­search, ei­ther di­rectly or via char­i­ties, with­out nec­es­sar­ily tak­ing away from other causes.

An­drews says while some of the larger char­i­ties have sci­en­tific ad­vis­ers, ad­vi­sory com­mit­tees or work with or­gan­i­sa­tions like the NHMRC, some of the smaller char­i­ties some­times don’t know where to start.

‘‘ Part of our fo­cus is to en­cour­age phil­an­thropic do­na­tions to med­i­cal re­search to be per­haps a lit­tle bit more in­formed, and in line with good science,’’ An­drews says.

Con­tin­ued inside — Page 19

Pic­ture: Gary Ra­m­age

Triple-A mech­a­nism: Pro­fes­sor War­wick An­der­son says the Na­tional Health and Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil plans to make its anal­y­sis of re­searchers avail­able to the pub­lic

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