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
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.
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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