Re­search un­der qual­ity re­view

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources - Sean Par­nell

AFORMER se­nior Bri­tish health of­fi­cial has been asked to in­ves­ti­gate why Aus­tralian re­searchers are strug­gling to de­liver pub­lic health projects, de­spite their po­ten­tial to im­prove com­mu­nity well-be­ing and de­liver sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings for gov­ern­ment.

Pro­fes­sor Don Nut­beam, pro vice-chan­cel­lor at Syd­ney Univer­sity and the for­mer head of pub­lic health in the Blair Labour gov­ern­ment, has been en­gaged by the Na­tional Health and Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil to lead a re­view of the level of sup­port for pub­lic health re­search in Aus­tralia.

It is the latest move by NHMRC chief War­wick An­der­son to make the agency a world leader and fo­cus the na­tion’s re­search ef­fort. The Nut­beam re­view is made more timely by Fed­eral Health Min­is­ter Ni­cola Roxon’s bid to make pre­ven­ta­tive health a fo­cus of the La­bor gov­ern­ment.

An­der­son — alarmed by a de­cline in suc­cess­ful fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for pub­lic health re­search in re­cent years — has also re­in­stated a re­quire­ment for ex­ter­nal re­view of project grants, and will over­haul the scor­ing process. Ex­ter­nal re­views were abol­ished three years ago and may be a fac­tor in the de­cline in suc­cess­ful fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tions.

‘‘ A high qual­ity pub­lic health re­search ef­fort in Aus­tralia is cru­cial if we are to tackle suc­cess­fully the health prob­lems of our coun­try, and those in our re­gion of the world,’’ An­der­son said.

While the terms of ref­er­ence for the re­view have yet to be fi­nalised, Nut­beam said he would head a com­mit­tee tasked with ex­am­in­ing the qual­ity and quan­tity of pub­lic health re­search, the level of in­ter­est from the sec­tor and sup­port from gov­ern­ment.

But the pub­lic health re­search trends will be a key is­sue in the re­view.

Last year, 20 per cent of pub­lic health ap­pli­ca­tions for NHMRC project grants were suc­cess­ful, com­pared to 32 per cent of bio­med­i­cal dis­ci­plines — five years ear­lier the fig­ures were 22 and 25 per cent re­spec­tively. De­spite the shift, the NHMRC still sup­ported more than $87 mil­lion in pub­lic health re­search in 2007.

An­der­son has pre­vi­ously ex­pressed a de­sire to have the NHMRC work along­side the Rudd Gov­ern­ment’s planned Na­tional Health and Hos­pi­tals Re­form Com­mis­sion.

An­other fo­cus of the re­view will be to en­cour­age more in­ter­ven­tion-based pub­lic health re­search to shift the bal­ance from costly acute care and chronic health pro­grams to pre­ven­ta­tive health mea­sures.

A re­port by the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Health and Wel­fare this week noted pre­ven­ta­tive health’s share of gov­ern­ment fund­ing has stag­nated since the turn of the cen­tury. To­tal spend­ing on pub­lic health in 2005-06 also fell 2.3 per cent to about $1.5 bil­lion, largely be­cause the Howard Gov­ern­ment had wound down pre­vi­ous im­mu­ni­sa­tion and anti-drug mea­sures.

Roxon said the re­port showed the Howard Gov­ern­ment ‘‘ just wasn’t in­ter­ested in pre­ven­ta­tive health’’, al­though the new La­bor ad­min­is­tra­tion has yet to re­veal any fund­ing changes.

Nut­beam said An­der­son is par­tic­u­larly keen to dis­cover ‘‘ how the NHMRC in­vest­ment in pub­lic health re­search can as­sist the Gov­ern­ment in an­swer­ing crit­i­cal pub­lic health ques­tions’’.

Aus­tralian So­ci­ety for Med­i­cal Re­search pres­i­dent Mark Hulett wel­comes the Nut­beam re­view. ‘‘ I think the NHMRC has been great in sup­port­ing pub­lic health, but I do get the im­pres­sion over the last few years at least that the qual­ity of ap­pli­ca­tions seems to have di­min­ished a lit­tle bit, and the num­ber has dropped off a lit­tle bit too,’’ Hulett said. ‘‘ I don’t know why that has hap­pened when pub­lic health should be such a fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant as­pect of health and med­i­cal re­search.’’

An in­ter­na­tional re­view panel brought in by An­der­son to cri­tique the NHMRC’s op­er­a­tions is un­der­stood to have drafted its fi­nal re­port, set to be con­sid­ered by the NHMRC coun­cil in April and re­leased for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion.

Panel mem­ber Elias Zer­houni, di­rec­tor of the US Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, re­cently called on the NHMRC to have a higher pub­lic profile, par­tic­u­larly on the in­ter­net where the NIH is the most vis­ited web­site in the US.

Zer­houni’s com­ments were seen as an en­dorse­ment for An­der­son’s bid to put pre­vi­ously con­fi­den­tial NHMRC fund­ing as­sess­ment files on an In­ter­net site to help private donors de­ter­mine who has had the most fund­ing suc­cess, or has been judged to have the most po­ten­tial, in health and med­i­cal re­search in Aus­tralia.

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