The Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) | A Research Australia Perspective

Report to Advisory Board, 2016

The MRFF is a once in a generation opportunity to significantly reshape the landscape of Australian medical research and innovation. Australia has world leading health and medical research (HMR) and a world-class health system, but too often they operate in isolation from each other rather than as one system with the aim of a healthier community. The MRFF provides the opportunity to bridge the gaps between the two, so that Australian medical research and innovation in partnership with health practitioners delivers the new practices, services and products needed to continue to improve the health, wellbeing and prosperity of Australians.
This paper draws heavily on an extensive consultation process undertaken by Research Australia with our broad membership and alliance partners. Download ‘The MRFF A Research Australia Perspective: Translating Research for a Sustainable Future’ here.

MRFF Strategy and Priorities

The inaugural 5 year Strategy and 2 year Priorities developed by the MRFF Advisory board were released on Wednesday 9 November.

The Strategy

The Strategy’s vison is ‘A health system fully informed by quality health and medical research’ and its Aim is ‘Through strategic investment, to transform health and medical research and innovation to improve lives, build the economy and contribute to health system sustainability.’

This focus in the vision on the health system is illuminating, and is carried through into the Strategy and Objectives. The objectives underlying this Aim emphasise the importance of creating health and economic benefits, embedding research evidence in healthcare, and driving collaboration and innovation across research and healthcare.

The Strategy itself is new, but provides continuity with existing strategies and programs. It describes the MRFF Strategy as building on the vision outlined in the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research (the McKeon Review) undertaken in 2012, and seeks to both work with and complement the programs of the NHMRC, the National Innovation and Science Agenda and Innovation and Science Australia.

The Strategy is not seeking to achieve everything- it identifies its role as reinforcing the existing research pipeline and filling in some of the gaps in areas like health services research and the ‘valleys of death’ at the pre-clinical and the post proof-of-concept commercialisation stages.

The Priorities

The Strategy identifies six Strategic Platforms, which in turn provide a framework for the Priorities identified for the first two years. The six Platforms and their related two year Priorities are summarised below.

  1. Strategic and international Horizons
    This Platform seeks to position Australia as a leader and collaborator in several key areas of international significance. Priorities in this Platform are: Antimicrobial Resistance; International collaboration; and the impact of disruptive technologies on health services delivery and training.
  2. Data and Infrastructure
    This Platform seeks to make better use of existing data and infrastructure. Priorities are:
    clinical quality registries; research with other agencies to identify how we can better utilise the MyHealth Record and linked health and social data for research; a consumer- driven health and research agenda; developing the means to measure and report on the economic returns from the MRFF’s investments; and research on the surveillance of and response to current and emerging infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance.
  3. Health Services and Systems
    Bolstering health services and systems research is identified by the Strategy as a particular need, and the Priorities are: testing the feasibility of a national institute for evidence based and cost-effective health care and public and preventive health; using the MBS Review to investigate and develop the evidence base for interventions that currently have limited supporting evidence; research in behavioural economics in public and preventive health; and post-clinical effectiveness studies of drugs and other health interventions and pre-clinical work on the re-purposing of existing drugs.
  4. Capacity and Collaboration
    Skills development of researchers and healthcare professionals, and more collaboration across research disciplines and between sectors is identified as critical. The Priorities are:
    identifying and accessing existing high cost infrastructure; Industry Exchange Fellowships; and expanding the existing NHMRC Practitioner Fellowships Scheme.
  5. Trials and Translation
    Particular attention has given by the Strategy to the role of clinical trials. Priories under this Platform are: support for new and existing national clinical trial networks; extending clinical trials of proven therapies with limited commercial potential to at-risk groups; and working with the NHMRC-accredited Advanced Health Research and Translation Centres to support the translation of research in key areas including clinical variation, co-morbidity and health inequity.
  6. Commercialisation
    Overcoming barriers to research commercialisation will initially be addressed by: creating incubator hubs for diagnostics, devices and molecular therapeutics; and the Biomedical Translation Fund.

The Strategy and Priorities are available at the Department’s website.

The MRFF and indirect research costs

During the Advisory Board’s consultation on the MRFF Strategy and Priorities, indirect research costs and how the MRFF would address them was raised on several occasions. The MRFF Strategy makes it clear that this is an issue that the Advisory Board is unable (or unwilling) to address.

A whole-of-government approach is needed to address the issue of research costing to ensure the research sector can continue to thrive. MRFF funding cannot in isolation solve the conundrum that surrounds indirect costs and may with the injection of new funds increase the need for a solution. The Advisory Board, while advocating for a whole-of-government and research sector agreed solution, must therefore abstain from implementing yet another funding model. In the short term MRFF program investment should adhere to existing costing approaches. Collaboration between Government and funded bodies to identify an equitable solution should be prioritised. MRFF Strategy, p.7

This leaves open the question of how MRFF funding will be treated for Research Infrastructure Block Grant purposes- will it be included as Category 1? It also raises the question of what arrangements will be made for MRIs, which currently receive a contribution from the NHMRC towards NHMRC funded grants through IRIISS.

Research Australia is raising this issue in its pre-budget submission to the Treasurer.

Funding from the MRFF

The next step is for the Minister to announce the first round of funding, expected to be approximately $60 million for 2016/17. Announcements are expected to be made shortly (but we have been hearing that now for weeks).

Funding into the MRFF

With the inaugural Australian Medical Research and Innovation Strategies and Priorities in place, and $784 million in funding over four years forecast in the 2016/17 Budget, the MRFF is poised to become a transformative force in medical research and medical innovation. However, this is dependent on the capital in the MRFF building to $20 billion over the next few years.

In the Budget in May this year, the $20 billion target was forecast to be reached in 2020-21, a year later than first projected in the Budget two years ago. Detailed projections for the injection of funds into the MRFF were provided for the forward estimates, with some heavy lifting to do in the last year (over $8 billion). So far in 2016/17 (and less than halfway through the financial year) an amount of $1.277 billion has been transferred to the MRFF, approximately $124 million less than the amount forecast to be contributed during this financial year.

Research Australia will be watching next year’s budget closely to see if the trajectory for building the MRFF’s capital is maintained.