Billion-dollar medical research grants process under review

Brandon How

The governance and administration of billions of dollars worth of health and medical research grants each year will go under the microscope in a review aimed at reducing duplication.

Health and Aged Care minister Mark Butler announced the review over the weekend to explore reforms to improve the alignment and coordination of grants.

The review will specifically look at the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and the Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA), which collectively award more than $1.5 billion in grants each year.

In a discussion paper, the government proposed three models for reform, including merging the two funds as a single grants program managed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Other options on the table include maintaining the status quo but with a new coordination mechanism between the two funds, and transferring responsibility for the MRFF to the NHMRC.

The MRFF was established in 2015 and is administered by the HMRO, which reports to the Health minister. The MRFF money is invested by the Future Fund Board of Guardians which reports to the Finance minister.

Over a rolling 10-year term, the MRFF is expected to generate a return of 1.5 to 2 per cent above the cash rate.

Funding for the MREA is maintained at about $800 million annually with grants administered through the NHMRC.

In 2018-19, the NHMRC launched a revamped grants program following an internal review of the structure of its research funding.

The Health minister has final say to approve or disapprove NHMRC grants, although the NHMRC has no record of a minister not approving a grant recommended by the NHMRC chief executive.

A review of the Australian Research Council (ARC) finalised in April recommended that ministers be removed from the grants approval process administered by the ARC.

Stakeholders are concerned by the existence of limited strategic coordination between the two funds, noting that the development of strategies by the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board, which advises the health minister on spending priorities for the MRFF, and the NHMRC “are neither coordinated nor integrated”. This could lead to duplication of research efforts when the same or similar grant applications are submitted to both.

Issues have also been raised on the use of two different grants management systems, the NHMRC Sapphire and the Business Grants Hub online portal.

There is also a call for better integration of government co-investment to help ‘de-risk’ commercialisation of health and medical research, particularly over a longer period and in collaboration across health, academia, and industry.

Without sufficient and flexible funding, the concern among stakeholders is that researchers will seek funding from overseas which may delay access to innovation in Australia.

The consultation paper also highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed a need to build “Australia’s domestic biotechnology capabilities, including manufacture and scale-up of pharmaceuticals, devices, and product development expertise”.

A lack of awareness among some clinicians on how their clinical translation work fits within Australia’s health and medical strategy may also dissuade applying for grants through the two funds, according to the discussion paper.

Health minister Mark Butler said that the review delivers on the government’s ongoing commitment to “enhancing Australia’s reputation as a world leader in high quality, innovative health and medical research and development”.

The consultation will run until July 14, with two consultation webinars to be hosted on June 6 and July 3. Roundtables will also be held, although these will be by invitation only.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment

Related stories