MRFF: what is the future of the future fund?

Reading the recent reporting and commentary on the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), it is difficult to get a grasp on whether its introduction will be a “good thing”.

Overwhelmingly, research institutes support the introduction of the MRFF, though some commentators have requested a more “socially acceptable” way of funding the research. The opposition in this respect had been focussed on the prospective source of the funds, namely the $7 dollar GP co-payment. While the government’s rethink of the policy would exempt certain vulnerable groups from the requirement to pay to visit their GP, commentators have pointed to evidence from around the world that suggests that any co-payment will stop people from accessing health care. If people skip necessary GP appointments and get sicker, costing the health system and the broader economy in doing so, will a MRFF funded in part by the savings made from these individuals ultimately have no net benefit?

Other commentators question whether the MRFF is simply an accounting sleight of hand – a way for the government to say that it is not making any cuts to health spending while doing just the opposite. In this way  “savings” in health (such as the cuts made to National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)) are repurposed to build the $20 billion MRFF, the interest on which will be spent on medical research. The net saving to the government’s budget is immediate. However, as the payments from the net interest earnt on the MRFF will now begin in the 2015-16 financial year, and as the government is in deficit, it will have to add further borrowing to its normal borrowing (which covers the deficit) in order to finance the spending on medical research through the MRFF. As a mere lawyer it has taken me ages to understand the thinking behind this argument, but it seems to me to mean that the money for medical research is ultimately coming from the same place. Is it drawing too long a bow to say that the MRFF is not additional research funding at all?

Further, it should be asked what the MRFF will support that is not currently supported by the country’s two main funding bodies, the NHMRC and Australian Research Council (ARC). I would like to see a focus on funding to support the translation of research through to product development and ultimately to commercialisation. A recurring theme at industry events is that, while Australian scientists excel at research, we fall far behind in translating that research to commercial outcomes.

Setting aside where the funds will come from, and to what end they will be directed, Australia’s current level of investment in medical research is just 75 cents of every $1,000 of the nation’s GDP and less than two-thirds of the OECD average. Investing more in medical research is a solid investment for the future and one which the government should embrace.

Elizabeth Campbell

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