By Rebecca Urban, The Australian
It came as a bolt out of the blue for most. But for professors Doug Hilton and Brendan Crabb, the unveiling of a new $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund as part of this week’s federal budget was the culmination of a three-year slog to salvage funding for the industry.
The men, who head up two of the nation’s leading medical research institutes, have lost count of the number of meetings they’ve held with politicians. And of the public rallies they’ve attended. And the Facebook and Twitter followers the cause has amassed since the industry united to fight the threat of major funding cuts that emerged during the lead-up to the previous Labor government’s budget of 2011.
While the campaign, dubbed Discoveries Need Dollars, was successful in stopping the rumoured cuts at that time, and also sparked a long-awaited strategic review into medical research funding, few envisaged that it could have also led to Tuesday night’s announcement.
Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), had just landed in Washington in the US for an important fundraising dinner and switched his mobile phone on to find more than 50 text messages and 300 emails demanding his attention.
“They were all saying, ‘You will not believe this!’,” Hilton tells The Australian. “Brendan and I were struggling with jet lag … and suddenly there were all these calls we had to make and interviews to do.”
“It was a surprise to me,” admits Crabb, chief executive of the Burnet Institute and president of industry lobby group, the Association of Australian Research Institutes (AAMRI). “But it’s like with many big surprises, there’s actually a hell of a lot of background to it so, in hindsight, it’s not such a big surprise after all.”
Both Crabb and Hilton and many of their colleagues suspect that the proposed Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), which plans to distribute around $1bn a year into medical research from 2022, had its genesis back in early 2011, when speculation that a supposed razor gang was zeroing in on sector funding.
For the 40-plus research institutes that come under AAMRI’s umbrella, government grants issued via the National Health and Medical Research Council are a significant part of their funding. And unconfirmed rumours that the government was considering slashing $400 million from the council’s budget spelled disaster for the industry.
Hilton was concerned that existing efforts to promote the industry’s interests in the capital were falling on deaf ears at a time when, following the global financial crisis, public funds were coming under increasing pressure.
And while there was no shortage of high-profile figures populating the various institutes’ boards — think former Qantas boss Geoff Dixon, former Democrats leader Natasha Stott-Despoja, banker Simon Mordant and company director Lindsay Maxsted — as well as industry groups and lobbyists capable of opening the right doors, Hilton felt the politicians also needed to hear from the many people who had personally benefited from local research efforts, whether they be survivors of illness or those who’d lost loved ones but still held high hopes for eventual cures.
“Usually, the science industry tends to roll out people like me or Nobel prize winners to do its bidding. But that can be a bit dry,” Hilton admits. “We realised that we had to allow members of the community and our younger researchers, who are so passionate and able to press a more compelling case, to have the platform.”
So with less than three months before the budget was due, Penny Fannin, a former journalist who runs the communications department at WEHI, was tasked with organising a grassroots campaign that would galvanise the public to help get the message across to the government.
Within days, a website was up, as was a Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and Twitter feed. Social media, which hadn’t been used in such a fashion and on such a large scale previously in Australia, would turn out to be a critical component of the campaign.
“Twitter, in particular, had only recently taken off,” recalls Fannin. And back in 2011, politicians’ Twitter accounts were typically maintained by the pollies themselves — now you’ve got one or two staffers tweeting for them — so it was interesting as it gave members of the community a direct conduit to those members of parliament.’’
It wasn’t long before mainstream media was showing an interest in the campaign and public rallies attracting thousands were held across the country. Fellow institutes also jumped behind the cause, while Peter Wills, who had authored the last government-sanctioned inquiry into the industry more than a decade earlier, called for another review to give the sector focus and security. Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt was another early and vocal supporter.
Fannin recalls a rumour circulating at the time that one particular cabinet member had opined that “nobody’s going to call Alan Jones to complain that we’ve cut medical funding’’. Sure enough, people began contacting the Sydney radio host to do just that.
By Easter that year, it was clear their message was being heard. Five senior researchers from the industry met with then-treasurer Wayne Swan and, although it was never confirmed that funding cuts were ever on the agenda, they left that meeting with the impression that funding was safe — at least in that year’s budget.
Crabb, who had only recently been appointed president at AAMRI — “the sort of role that you’re lumped with when the music stops and you happen to be the last one standing”, he jokes — credits the campaign for the government’s subsequent decision to announce a strategic review into health and medical research.
Thought long overdue by many in the sector, the review was chaired by the reigning Australian of the Year, Simon McKeon who was highly regarded on both sides of politics due to his successful career as an investment banker and commitments to public life.
The review attracted some 350 submissions and McKeon’s subsequent report, released in April last year to bipartisan support, reiterated the importance of the sector to Australia’s future, ultimately calling for a stronger connection between medical research and healthcare provision. It also called for a $3bn funding boost over the coming decade.
To Crabb and Hilton, the exercise confirmed their view that there were many inside government who were passionate about the industry, which employs more than 20,000 people and is worth almost $4bn in exports each year.
While former Labor ministers Mark Butler and Tanya Plibersek are considered strong advocates of the sector, many believe that this week’s events in particular would not have transpired without the unwavering support of Tony Abbott.
Crabb points to the Prime Minister’s speech in response to Labor’s 2013 federal budget in which he reverenced the health and medical research industry in the first 15 seconds. Then, later that year, while speaking at a Burnet Institute function, the-then opposition leader hinted that health and medical research would be quarantined from any future funding cuts.
While the Prime Minister’s Office has remained quiet so far on his role in devising the MRFF, it is understood that one of the reasons it came to fruition so quickly was that it had the express support of Abbott, Joe Hockey and Health Minister Peter Dutton.
All three are also on the government’s Expenditure Review Committee, which approves all budget initiatives and spending, meaning the project had support from the top from the get-go.
Crabb points to Abbott’s track record in the health portfolio under the previous Howard government, including a decision about 10 years ago to double funding to the NHMRC.
“I think we have got to assume that he would see health and medical research as a low-risk and high-return venture,” he says. “He’s effectively doing the same thing again.’’
Crabb is pleased that recommendations from the McKeon report are being acted upon, suggesting it’s an acknowledgment that the future of Australia’s economy is going to be more knowledge based than in the past.
He notes the political debate that has erupted as a result of the decision to fund the MRFF out of projected savings to the health budget, including the controversial $7 co-payment proposed for doctors’ visits.
However, he rejects suggestions that additional funding will go towards supporting “people in lab coats doing high science”.
Much of the Burnet’s work, Crabb says, has produced benefits for public health, highlighting research that has contributed to Australia having among the world’s lowest rates of HIV.
More recently, the institute has developed a point-of-care test for the deadly virus that is being made available to the one-third of sufferers who have not previously had access to such testing, he says. That project was part funded by the NHMRC.
Meanwhile, Hilton is hoping that the “visionary element” of what has been proposed won’t be lost among the debate.
Currently on his way back to Australia from the US, he expects to travel to Canberra next week for meetings with politicians and other stakeholders.
He’s keen to hear more detail about the MRFF as well as to talk more generally about the government’s long-terms plan for science. “Australia needs a blueprint for science and innovation, and not just in the area of health and medical research,” Hilton says.
“It’s so important to our productivity and our competitive place in world, we need a really sophisticated, well-thought-out plan to allow research to blossom and better apply those ideas.”