Health Minister Nicola Roxon and her office are about to feel the reverberations of a serious dummy spit by a senior academic over the delayed release of a major review of public health research.

Don Nutbeam, professor of public health, provost and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Sydney, chaired a committee that completed the review for the NHMRC last October.

Today he has taken the unusual step of publicly releasing a letter to the public health community expressing his frustration at the continual delays to the report’s release.

The letter also reveals the key findings of the review, including — ironically enough — a call for action to improve transparency in the use of public health research funded by governments.

It recommends the creation of a national register of public health research (which would make it easier to identify when government-commissioned studies are not published or released) as well as a much stronger focus on research that tests solutions to health problems, rather than simply describing the problems.

Nutbeam told Crikey he was “particularly grumpy” about the delay because the review had highlighted the benefits of the Public Health Education and Research Program (that supported public health education and research in universities), which was axed in the recent budget.

“We got a lot of feedback in the review about the benefits of PHERP, and suggestions about how it could be revitalised and could further support the development of public health research in Australia,” he said. “But none of that made it into the public domain in time to be considered for the budget.”

However, he assumed the delay was more likely to be “cock-up than conspiracy”, reflecting the “inefficiencies and the bureaucratic nightmare that’s been created around the NHMRC and its relationship with the Government.”

Nutbeam says he’s had many promises from the NHMRC ceo Professor Warwick Anderson of the report’s imminent release, but that Anderson hadn’t been able to deliver on these promises, presumably because final sign-off had not been forthcoming from Roxon’s office.

Nutbeam’s letter provides Roxon’s email address.

“I’m really annoyed by it all, and I would invite anyone concerned to make their views known to the Minister,” he told Crikey. “Whilst I’m sure the Minister’s office is overwhelmed by the current media storm over swine flu, that’s not a reasonable excuse for the past six months.”

Nutbeam, a former head of public health in the UK Department of Health, is no hot-head and wouldn’t have taken a decision to go public lightly. One reason for his frustration is that he leaves Australia in a few months to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton and doesn’t have much time left for advocating on behalf of the review’s recommendations.

Declaration: Melissa Sweet holds an honorary appointment in the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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