Jane Nethercote writes:

Tony Abbott may have lost the battle to control RU486, but has he found a way to win the war by stacking the National Health and Medical Research Council?

On 14 June, the government announced the appointment of the 19 members of the NHMRC for the next three years. And it appears that almost half the 14 members of the NHMRC’s Australian Health Ethics Committee have strong links to Catholic organisations, according to Democrats leader Lyn Allison in The Canberra Times. Not to mention some strong views on issues close to Abbott’s heart.

The new Chair of the NHMRC, Professor Michael Good, told the Senate inquiry into embyronic stem research in 2002: “Where would ES cell research lead? Because of this lack of the normal rigour that is expected of medical and scientific research, one has to question whether there is an ulterior motive to this research and there is reason to be concerned that the real motive for wishing to experiment on human embryos may be to clone human beings.”

And Professor Colin Masters, the new chair of the National Health Committee (NHC) believes that “research on embryonic stem cells could easily be restricted to rodents or other species until such time as the true potential of these cells is realised.”

This is not to question the professors’ credentials or views, but it does raise questions about Abbott’s choices.

While accusations of board-stacking are worrying enough, there’s another development – Abbott’s authority over the NHMRC has just increased. On 1 July, a new NHMRC act was passed which means that:

  • The CEO of the NHMRC now reports directly to the Minister – not the NHMRC;
  • The Minister now has much more discretion in appointing the Chair and members;
  • The Minister no longer needs to consult other than “appropriately” in the appointment of a Chair;
  • The Minister no longer needs to consult with State and territory Health Ministers before appointing a Chair;
  • The Minister no longer needs to seek nominations from peak bodies/associations before appointing council members.
  • The Minister no longer requires that people on council have “expertise relevant to the functions of the council”;
  • The Minister may now set up sub committees as s/he chooses do look into what he chooses;
  • The Minister now appoints all members of the Australian Health Ethics Committee (including Chair) after “consulting appropriately”.

The Government claims the changes – introduced on 29 March, not long after Abbott’s failed RU486 bid – were necessary to ensure that the NHMRC would become a fully independent statutory body within the Health and Ageing portfolio.

Independent from what is the question. Consultation? The states? Peak bodies? It certainly doesn’t seem at first glance to make the NHMRC independent from the views of one health minister whose religious views permeate his politics.

This morning, The Agehas run with the story, noting that the NHMRC is a statutory agency that “distributes federal funding for medical research”. True, but it’s also much more. A basic overview of the NHMRC’s sub-committees indicates that not only do they have the power to set the country’s research agenda (with an annual research budget of around $400 million), they also set its health policy agenda. Through the NHMRC:

  • The Australian health ethics committee (AHEC), “monitors and supports the system of ethical review that underpins research, issues guidelines for the conduct of medical research involving humans, and gives consideration to a wide range of ethical issues in health.”
  • The National Health Committee (NHC) “manages and coordinates the development and dissemination of health advice in a range of formats and on a wide range of health issues.”
  • The Human Genetics Advisory Committee (HGAC) “provides on-going, high-level advice on the technical and strategic aspects of current and emerging issues in human genetics and related technologies, particularly the expected impacts on human health and healthcare.

Interesting times ahead for health policy in Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey