Key Strategic Directions for 2005-06
Oversighting of the Research Committee, Health Advisory Committee and Australian Health Ethics Committee
Through the Centres for Research Management and Policy and Health Advice Policy and Ethics, the NHMRC has provided secretariat, research and project management support to the work of the Research Committee, Health Advisory Committee and the Australian Health Ethics Committee. This support facilitated the high quality outputs from the committees and ensured consideration of the perspectives of individual members, stakeholders, consumers and the secretariat.
To more effectively demonstrate the outcomes of the Australian Government’s investment in health and medical research and taking into account the recommendations of the 2004 Investment Review, the Research Committee undertook a substantial review of its activities in 2005-06. It identified the need for the NHMRC to structure its research framework in such a way as to: improve responsiveness to community and government needs; allow greater flexibility in directing funds to priority areas; and improve reporting functionality. Included in this restructure was the streamlining of funding schemes and peer review processes.
The establishment of the Human Genetics Advisory Committee (HGAC) was one of the key recommendations from the joint Australian Law Reform Commission/Australian Health Ethics Committee review of the protection of human genetic information. The HGAC was established in January 2006 as a Principal Committee of the NHMRC to provide advice on how the developments in human genetics and related technologies might best benefit Australians. The HGAC will consider the many complex social, legal, ethical and scientific issues that might arise from these technologies. Activities for 2005-06 included the establishment of four working groups to consider the recommendations from the review and the Australian Government’s response to those recommendations.
Responding Effectively to Stakeholder Needs
The NHMRC became a separate statutory agency with clearer lines of responsibility from 1 July 2006. This was the major component of the Government's responses to the Australian National Audit Office audit report in 2003, and the 2004 report Sustaining the Virtuous Cycle for a Healthy, Competitive Australia – Investment Review of Health and Medical Research
. This revision of the NHMRC’s governance arrangements included clarification of the role and responsibilities of the Chief Executive Officer in reporting directly to the Minister, in accordance with government guidelines for all agencies subject to the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997
The NHMRC’s commitment to consumer needs was demonstrated in 2005-06 by the development of a Guide on the Effective Engagement of Consumers and the Community in the Development and Dissemination of Health Advice
. This provides practical advice for individuals and organisations involved in developing, evaluating and disseminating health information. Consumer needs were also addressed through the development of a guide Making Decisions about Tests and Treatments
, which is aimed at improving communication between healthcare consumers and health professionals.
The NHMRC’s strategic research initiatives in 2005-06 included the promotion of multidisciplinary investigation of major health issues in collaboration with other Australian Government agencies. The NHMRC is the lead agency for the Promoting and Maintaining Good Health National Research Priority, and this year recommended funding for cross disciplinary research teams through programs with the priority goals of Preventive Healthcare and Strengthening Australia’s Social and Economic Fabric. In collaboration with the Australian Research Council, the NHMRC recommended funding for research through the Ageing Well, Ageing Productively program and the Frontier Technology (Thinking Systems) program.
With the support of the Australian Research Council and the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, a key achievement of the NHMRC in 2005-06 was the finalisation of the web-based National Ethics Application Form (NEAF). NEAF is a web-based tool that assists researchers in all disciplines to complete research ethics proposals for submission to Human Research Ethics Committees. It enhances the efficiency and quality of the ethical review process. Positive feedback has been received following information sessions on the form, conducted throughout Australia in 2005-06. Approximately 300 stakeholders and community members attended these sessions.
On 28 September 2005, the Minister for Health and Ageing announced that the NHMRC’s Research Committee had set aside funds for urgent research into a potential avian influenza-induced pandemic. In October 2005, the NHMRC implemented a rapid peer review and administrative process to meet this need. A total of 131 expressions of interest were received and, following robust review, 44 applicants were invited to submit full proposals. Expert assessment of the full proposals led to 33 projects being awarded funding by the end of December. All projects are expected to produce results of significance within 6 to 18 months.
NHMRC investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research continues to grow. In 2005-06, the NHMRC expended $21.2 million in research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, a marked increase from the $6.2 million investment made in 2002-03.
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Promotion of a Research Culture
The NHMRC is working on a number of fronts to increase the uptake of research by industry, governments and the broader community. In 2005-06, more than $11.7 million in research funding was provided by the NHMRC to enable Australian researchers to develop closer links with industry and to gain experience in the commercial development of research findings. This represents an 80 per cent increase in allocation over the 2003-2006 triennium (from $6.5 million in 2002-03).
NHMRC end of grant report data received in 2005-06 showed that 17 out of 18 Chief Investigators from recently completed Development Grants (a proof of concept commercialisation scheme) anticipated a commercial outcome from their research.
The funding provided through a development grant titled ‘Development and Evaluation of a New Cochlear Implant Sound Processing Strategy Utilising a Spike-based Temporal Auditory Representation’ is an example of how NHMRC-funded research may have a future positive impact for the community. The grant will fund research by the Bionic Ear Institute that aims to improve bionic ear users' perception of speech, particularly in noisy environments.
Medical Research Benefits, Health Standards and Health Policy
The achievements of the Department and the NHMRC in increasing community and stakeholder awareness of the benefits of health and medical research was recognised in the May 2006 Federal Budget, by the allocation of funding for a new Australian Fellowship Scheme and by providing an additional $500 million over four years from 2006-07 for health and medical research, to be administered by the NHMRC.
Major achievements in 2005-06 are outlined below.
The NHMRC increased awareness of the potential benefits of health and medical research through Ministerial announcements of successful recipients of grants and the research topics funded. The NHMRC awarded 981 new grants in 2005-06. Awareness activities included media releases and information on the NHMRC web site
, and highlights in the NHMRC’s annual report.
Through an NHMRC enabling grant, an Australian and New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry commenced operation in July 2005 at the University of Sydney. The Registry collates important information about clinical trials being conducted in Australia in all areas of health and medicine, which is available to the public. Details of more than 1,000 clinical trials are held on the database.
During the year, the NHMRC also released its publication 10 of the Best
, which showcases to the public the benefits of 10 of the best projects funded by the NHMRC, which have now concluded.
The NHMRC supports increased awareness of health and medical research in universities, medical research institutes and hospitals through promoting funding schemes that assist training and development of postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers. The number of individual researchers supported in 2006 increased by 39 per cent over that for 2005 (from 1,054 to 1,470).
During 2005-06, the NHMRC raised awareness of ethical issues in health and medical research through the public consultation stages of its current review of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans
, the primary source of ethical guidance for human research in Australia. Some of the issues discussed received media attention. The Australian Research Council and the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee are actively involved in the review. A second round of community consultation concluded in March 2006 and generated 185 submissions, all of which are publicly available on the NHMRC web site
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The Human Genetics Advisory Committee held its first public meeting with the community and stakeholders in Melbourne on 8 June 2006. This resulted in clear messages to the committee about priorities and issues in human genetics. A model of community and stakeholder engagement is being drafted by the committee as a result of the meeting.
The Embryo Licensing Committee held two one-day workshops in 2005-06:
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- the first was a scientific workshop in Sydney on 7 March 2006 to discuss the committee’s recent discussion paper entitled Human Embryo – A Biological Definition. The workshop was attended by approximately 100 professionals, including scientists, genetic counsellors, academics, fertility nurses and NHMRC Committee members, who generated productive commentary on the definition. The discussion paper is available for comment on the NHMRC web site; and
- the second workshop was held in Sydney on 30 May 2006 and focused on consumer related issues. The objectives of the workshop were to facilitate communication between the Licensing Committee and relevant organisations and individuals, and to improve policy guidelines and procedures in relation to embryo donation for research purposes. The 28 participants included professionals working in the assisted reproductive technology field and representatives of consumer and disability organisations. The workshop was highly productive as the discussion generated excellent ideas for refining the relationship between the Licensing Committee and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) consumers.
High Quality Health Advice
The NHMRC has continued to develop health advice based on the best available evidence for the Minister, governments, practitioners, and the community. Further, the NHMRC has continued its program of support for external guideline developers thus ensuring a greater spread of evidence based clinical practice guidelines addressing health issues of concern to the community. Seventeen new guidelines or advisory reports were issued or endorsed by the NHMRC in 2005-06.
Major health advice initiatives for the NHMRC for 2005-06 included:
- commissioning the development of new health guidelines and information in identified priority areas, including cardiac rehabilitation in Indigenous communities;
- increasing cultural competencies for healthier living through the development and dissemination of strategies for communicating health messages to culturally and linguistically diverse communities;
- improving communication between health professionals and consumers about diagnostic and therapeutic interventions;
- updating existing NHMRC guidelines such as nutrient reference values, recreational water and drinking water treatment chemicals;
- developing an electronic decision support tool for the management of water quality in small rural and remote communities; and
- supporting the Guidelines Assessment Register for the identification, development, review and endorsement of clinical care guidelines and health advice.