Research under quality review
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.