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Let medicines pay for research: poll

March 1, 2004
Mark Metherell
The Sydney Morning Herald

Most people would pay $1 more for each prescription - yielding about $160 million a year - if it went to health and medical research, an opinion poll has found.

The survey, commissioned by lobby group Research Australia, found that 88 per cent were prepared to pay extra for their medicines if it went to health and medical research.

The findings released today emerge as the Federal Government examines recommendations for an increase in funding along with an overhaul of the main research funding body, the National Health and Medical Research Council, which distributed $266 million in grants last financial year.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed believe spending on research should be more than doubled. A third said it should be tripled.

Health and medical research ranked equal second with education, after health care itself and well ahead of defence and welfare in spending priorities.

But while Australian medical research rates strongly overseas and scores more highly than any other branch of science in generating economic returns, hundreds of recognised research teams each year fail to get funding.

The chief executive of Research Australia, Christine Bennett, said that of the 1760 medical research projects which sought funds from the NHMRC last year, only 400 were successful. Another 600 were assessed as worthy of money but missed out.

"That's a clear indication of the unrealised potential in the high quality end of medical research in Australia," Dr Bennett said.

International evidence showed that Australian medical research was producing research results which were being cited at a rate equal to or better than those of other countries.

NHMRC-funded research received mentions in top scientific publications at a rate 50 per cent above the world average, while the work of Australia's top research institutions were mentioned at more than double the world average.

"The community's strong support for health research may well reflect the ageing of our population, our increased expectations for living longer and living healthier," Dr Bennett said.

"And of course research is the only real hope for some major health problems such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia or Parkinson's disease."

Peter Wills, the business leader whose review prompted a doubling in government funding for medical research in 2000, said research had shown itself to be one of Australia's most successful areas when it competed internationally, in output and returns.

"When you look at where the growth is and what Australia is best at, medical research is right up there," Mr Wills said.

While Australia's research effort had grown significantly, many of the big players, particularly the US, have lifted their investment even further.

Australia's biotechnology sector had grown by an average of 16 per cent in recent years, and the number of companies in the sector had more than doubled to 350 since 1998.

"For Australia this is a fantastic opportunity. Not only are we contributing to better health outcomes, we are getting into the smart end of knowledge creation," Mr Wills said.

The poll, by AC Nielsen, surveyed 689 adults. It found 60 per cent were willing to participate in a trial for a new medical treatment and 85 per cent believed the Government should invest in research to address global health problems.

Copyright © 2004, The Sydney Morning Herald