Imagine there was a technology that could have saved the lives of everyone who died in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the Christchurch earthquake, with spare capacity for the Queensland floods. How much would you want the government to pay for that? Quite a lot, I’m guessing.

Of course that’s impossible, but in the middle of the tragic news from Japan we received word of a new treatment for hepatitis C that has good prospects of increasing cure rates and avoiding side-effects  so terrible many people prefer the disease. Only The Age and ABC seem to have covered it.

There’s still a way to go before the treatment’s success is confirmed, let alone it becomes widely available, but there’s a decent chance that in a couple of years doctors will use this work to save the lives of more people than died in the recent run of disasters. And the year after that, they’ll do it again, and again.

The trial was paid for by Roche, which stands to make a lot of money if its drugs work. However, it was based on early prior publicly funded research. I can say that without bothering to check, because all significant medical advances these days are utterly dependent on government-funded research at some point in their process.

That is why rumours the federal government is considering cutting $400 million over three years (about 20%) from the National Health and Medical Research Council are concerning. Unless you plan never to get sick, cuts to medical research funding affect you.

Many years ago, Science Minister Barry Jones called scientists “wimps” for not fighting for their research grants. This time something is different. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has kicked off a campaign called Discoveries Need Dollars, and a lot of medical scientists have got on board, using social networking, research institutes’ media advisers and human interest stories from patients who’ve had their lives saved by recent medical advances.

The campaigners have noted that it’s not as if lots of money is being thrown at bad research. About 20% of applications of NHMRC grants are successful, but review processes rate 40%-50% as definitely deserving funding, with many more worthy of serious consideration. Not every line of research will bear fruit, but some, such as the work that led to the bionic ear, the use of lithium to treat bipolar disorder and the first treatments for leukaemia, pay for themselves hundreds of times over.

An evident danger is that 20% less medical research will be done, leading to 20% fewer lifesaving findings. A less obvious risk is that efforts will be made to stretch the reduced budget further, leading to poorly conducted research. Working at Australasian Science I can’t help noticing that many of the media releases we get from New Zealand refer to research conducted using sample sizes so small the value of the data appears highly questionable. It’s not hard to imagine this is a result of the drastic de-funding of New Zealand science over the past three decades.

However, the even more disturbing side of this is what we are not hearing. Apparently, the Australian Research Council, which funds non-medical science research as well as other fields, is also in danger of major cutbacks. Yet so far there is no sign of a similar campaign mounted by other scientists.

Promoting non-medical research is certainly harder. Everyone can see how a cure for cancer is relevant to them, but the same doesn’t go for learning that fundamental constants of the universe might actually vary, or how skinks select the s-x of their offspring. Shock jocks will happily attack money spent on most areas of research, but usually spare medical science their scorn.

That’s all the more reason, however, why we need a strong campaign explaining how important research in astronomy and zoology, geology and climatology actually is. If the rumoured cutbacks to the ARC are real it’s time for scientists to start making the case.

*Stephen Luntz is the author of Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists (CSIRO Publishing 2011) and blogs on Australian and New Zealand science

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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