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Government ministers have substantial powers at their disposal, and they are often required to be guided by the expertise of their own department and independent bodies to ensure decisions are not tainted by political expediency.
Questions are being raised about the Medical Research Future Fund.Credit: Illustration: Richard Giliberto
An extensive investigation by The Age’s science reporter, Liam Mannix, has found compelling criticisms of the federal government’s $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund that suggest this balance between ministerial discretion and departmental objectivity has not always been struck.
The fund was created by the Abbott government in 2014, to be paid for initially by a $7 GP co-payment and billions of dollars in cuts to health spending. The co-contribution was dumped after furious opposition from doctors, with it being bankrolled from general government revenue.
Most government funding for medical research is channelled through either the MRFF or the National Health and Medical Research Council, an independent statutory agency that handed out about $900 million in grants last year. The MRFF also hands out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants built on the returns of its original $20 billion endowment.
To secure funding from the research council, grant applications are put through a transparent, peer-reviewed process. It is a rigorous and competitive exercise, and only about 10 per cent of submitted grants are successful. In contrast, while many of the grants handed out by the MRFF follow a similarly rigorous process, it has allowed for the health minister to hand out money at their own discretion in some cases.
That has led to some disquiet within the science community. As The Age has found, critics and experts had grave concerns that, under the guidelines and rules of the MRFF, there was a pattern of ad hoc funding being given to projects without competitive tenders which, at times, followed lobbying of government ministers. And it’s not small amounts. More than $500 million of the $2 billion handed out under the scheme so far has been awarded without a competitive process since the fund was established in 2015 until September last year.
Credit: The Age
There is no doubt that some grants handed out by former health minister Greg Hunt, while within the fund’s rules, appear to have a political edge. Money was handed out for a new research centre in a marginal electorate in Tasmania, even though it had never been asked for and was ultimately never built. In Sydney, millions in non-competitive funding flowed to a charity to build a research centre. Located at a hospital precinct in a safe Labor seat, it also happened to be on the border with both then prime minister Scott Morrison’s seat and the marginal Liberal seat of Banks.
As Professor Warwick Anderson, chief executive of the National Health and Medical Research Council between 2005 and 2016, points out in The Age’s investigation, the fund was unique because of the level of influence the health minister had on how money was spent.
In his defence, Hunt said 91 per cent of project grants were peer reviewed and awarded after a competitive process and that all departmental funding recommendations were followed. Nine per cent of project grants may not seem like a great deal, but at more than half a billion dollars they comprise almost a quarter of the money handed out through the fund so far.
Hunt also points out that part of the MRFF’s conceptualisation was to give the government a funding outlet for its medical science priorities separate to the research council, through usual budget and cabinet processes.
Whatever the case, even a senior bureaucrat had to admit (while personally disagreeing), at a recent webinar posted to the department’s website, that the MRFF was perceived by some in the science community as a “ministerial slush fund”.
After years of complaints, the Albanese government is reviewing how taxpayer-funded medical research grants are approved. It has promised to specifically look at the governance and administration of the Medical Research Future Fund.
Given that it is a first-term government which is not tainted by past decisions, this is a unique opportunity to rebuild the credibility of this important fund.
The most obvious and simplest fix would be for all the grants from the future fund to be funnelled through the National Health and Medical Research Council, an independent body that has many years of experience in handing out grants in a rigorous way at arm’s length from government.
Whatever the solution, there must be more robust checks and balances on how research grants are distributed. This was also part of the solution posited by the senior bureaucrat to address what he said was the unfair perception about the fund’s operation.
Australia has a proud history of scientific achievements, among them the “bionic ear”, plastic optical lenses, ultrasound scanning and the HPV anti-cancer vaccine. Government funding plays a crucial role in ensuring that this country continues to attract and keep some of the world’s best medical science researchers. That makes it far too important to leave to the whims of a government.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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