Medical research a major export earner

Burnet Institute

06 August, 2014

Burnet Institute Director and CEO, Professor Brendan Crabb and Baker IDI and Diabetes Institute Director and CEO, Professor Garry Jennings AO write for The Australian about the importance of international scientific collaborations in relation to the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.

Much of the discussion about the federal budget seems to be based on the assumption that if it is not “all good” it must be “all bad”. Medical research, which all parties and the public agree is important, has been caught up in this oversimplified view. As one economics editor put it recently, spending scarce funds in Australia to find a cure for major disease is a waste of money because most likely it will happen overseas.

Many commentators have ­argued that the budget should be directed at the health system, where the need is greatest.

Others have pointed out that it takes many years to reap the rewards of scientific discoveries and most innovations will not succeed commercially.

These sentiments commonly have been aired since Tony Abbott unveiled the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund.

Australia may contribute just 3 per cent of the world’s scientific output but we need access to the other 97 per cent, and with this access comes major advances through international collaborations. Australia plays a leadership role in establishing and partnering in global consortiums. The US National Science Foundation recently found that more than 52 per cent of published scientific papers in Australia had international co-authors, well above the 25 per cent global rate.

Big science has the potential to deliver big impact and Australia is a critical part of this.

However, our scientists need access to size and scale when it comes to patient cohorts and technology to speed up research.

Heart disease researchers from Baker IDI, for example, are collaborating with scientists in Beijing to evaluate a new biomarker in the diagnosis of acute heart attacks. The collaboration is essential to establish access to a high volume of patients and fast-track this work but the innovation comes from Melbourne: from the collaborative work between top bench researchers and clinicians working in one of the country’s busiest cardiology units.

The investment won’t deliver dividends now; science works on a much longer timeframe.

The life cycle of innovation takes seven to 10 years and we need to improve commercialising our research, but the contributions of science to growth are nonetheless impressive. Medical research contributes to a burgeoning medicines industry that in turn contributes more than $4bn worth of exports a year.

In recent years the medicines industry has been the Australian manufacturing sector’s biggest hi-tech expert earner. The global pharmaceuticals market, which is worth about $890bn, is expected to be worth nearly $2 trillion by 2020.

With its growing population, rising living standards and an increasing burden of chronic disease, Asia will be one of the main drivers of this growth.

This represents a significant opportunity for Australia and increased investment could help build this into one of our key innovative export ­industries.

Financial modelling of return-on-investment in medical research further supports the economic benefits. Various reports, including from Rand in Britain and Deloitte Access Economics in Australia, have used different methodologies to show the net health gains, including improved quality of life, and the return on investment to the economy as a result of investment in medical research.

The results show that for every $1 spent on research, at least $2 was generated in additional economic output, with this figure much higher in several studies. There are, of course, limitations with this data, particularly with regards to when the returns will be made, but there is general agreement that spending on science generates jobs and economic growth.

Research is critical in guiding how best to spend health dollars, where to invest in treatment and how Australians can play an important role in improving their health. This work also informs what clinicians should be talking about with their patients and what tests they should be doing to prevent complications and disability. This is not pie-in-the-sky research but work that has a direct bearing on people’s health today.

The potential of the federal government’s medical research fund is enormous. Yes, there are questions to be answered about the fund, including how it will work and what areas it will fund, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

The fund would be a game changer and the evidence shows all Australians stand to benefit.

CLICK HERE to access the article at The Australian’s website.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

Director and CEO; Co-Head Malaria Research Laboratory; Chair, Victorian Chapter of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI)




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