Medical research funding under the microscope

Everyone who has ever taken a tablet or had a medical procedure has benefited from medical research, but who is investing in the area and is it enough?

More than just researching a cure for cancer, medical researchers improve the efficiency of medical procedures, develop new ways to prevent illness and explore how to improve recovery from illness and injury. 

Two key players in the medical research field are tertiary institutions and not-for-profits and philanthropists, together making up 70 per cent of all medical research funding. 

Clifford Craig Medical Research Trust was established with the sole purpose of supporting medical professionals in the state’s hospitals to undertake research. 

“If it wasnt for philanthropy or not for profits, a lot of research wouldn't happen at all ... if we just relied on government funding through organisations like the NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] research would struggle,” Clifford Craig chief executive Peter Milne said. 

Mr Milne said the majority of government funding is awarded to universities who have the expertise and resources to excel at grant applications, but this means medical practitioners on the ground miss out. 

“Medical practitioners aren't very good at [grant writing], but they have all the participants and they see all the issues,” he said. 

Even in universities, competition for funding is fierce. UTAS deputy vice-chancellor of research Brigid Heywood said only 20 to 25 per cent of applications are funded. 

Some researchers are turning to crowd-funding to get their research off the ground, which Professor Heywood said has its risks. 

“I think there are issues around governance ... unless it’s being conducted within a managed environment then you run the risk of there possibly being issues around ethics approval, possible issues around the proper management of the project to deliver outcomes to report to the people who funded it,” she said. 

“It’s an evolving space, I've seen it work brilliantly but we also know that we are working through … some of the governance issues that are linked to that mode of funding.”

Clifford Craig relies entirely on donations to continue funding research, and Mr Milne said local support for research is very good. 

“I was surprised when I first came here how generous some people are in the community,” he said. 

“I don't know whether people would say the same thing in Melbourne or Sydney, or even in Hobart … we are highly regarded here because northern Tasmania wants to bat above its weight, so they see us as the vehicle to say how can we make health better for people in our region? And how can we make hospitals better for the people in our region?”

There is a hazard on relying on public philanthropy for funding, however, Mr Milne said. 

“It means that a lot of the research needs to be translational because donors only want to support things where they can actually were there is a potential outcome.” 

This means some areas, like mental health, don’t receive as much support. 

“We get plenty of people that donate for cancer projects, if we have an appeal for pediatrics we would get plenty of funds, for it but poor old mental health – and there’s probably a few other areas similar to mental health – miss out sadly, it's not attractive so we receive very few donations for mental health projects,” Mr Milne said. 

He would like to see a government-funded research department to support clinicians to undertake medical research, which would step in and support those less favoured areas.