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Abbott takes Jo’s plan: dumps renewables, pumps medical research

Three years ago I made the case for dumping renewables, and doubling medical research — and both occurred in last night’s budget. (Yes, I hear the cry that this is just more big-government funded bad-science, bear with me, I’ll get to that). First let me bask in the glory (wink). 

I’m especially proud of the Op-Ed I wrote in The Weekend Australian in May 2011.  Indeed it’s very much my driving mission — to redirect corrupted and wasteful tax funds towards better uses, and to help four year olds with cancer, and all the other variants of human pain.

It’s big biccies… The Abbott Government is setting up a 20 billion dollar medical research future fund, which is expected to distribute $1 billion to research annually by 2022-23. It’s being claimed it is the largest in the world (I am not entirely convinced, but nonetheless, it’s radically big). We currently spend about $800m a year on medical research, so this would really double it. (Spooky).

But I can feel the barbs of skeptical libertarians already — saying the money should have been used to pay off the debt or returned to the people who earned it — and I’m sympathetic. Public medical research funds get corrupted and wasted as efficiently as any other public kind. Hear me out — even if this could have been better, it’s a magnitude better than what went before, and if there ever was a case for public funded science research it surely starts with medicine.

First, funding inefficient solar panels is dead money — there is no upside, not even the possibility of discovery, no chance that second-hand solar panels will be worth something. But in medical science there is a revolution going on — like the silicon chips of the 1970’s, medical science is on the start of  the exponential curve — glittering, transformative new tools have appeared in the last 15 years. We’re talking of curing blindness and paraplegia, regrowing replacement organs for people waiting on endless lists. There is so much upside that even inefficient, biased, public funded research can produce things we want  — something we can sell for decades to come. Something we know there will be a demand for as long as there are people. Whether this is a good outcome or more wasted spending is partly up to us. What government science needs is real science journalists, commentators and organized public critics. We need to find ways to make Ministers accountable for non-productive, politically correct ARC grants. This is an opportunity, not a guarantee…


From: The Australian May 07, 2011

Some snippets:

LOST opportunities are invisible but deadly. 

We’re thinking of axing Australian medical research yet we’re supporting solar panel manufacturers in China. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Solar energy costs us more than five times what coal-powered energy does. So instead of spending $1bn on solar panels, we could have spent $200 million on cheap electricity and used the other $800m to double our medical research budget.

All the money spent employing green police, subsidizing solar or researching how to pump carbon dioxide underground is money not spent on medical research. Opportunity cost is a killer. The path not taken could be lined with happier, longer lives…

When Julia Gillard spends money on climate-related work instead of medical research, she is making a choice about the net benefits and it’s supposedly based on science. It’s true sooner or later medical research will get the answers right, but for someone who is sick with a deadly disease, sooner makes a life-and-death difference.

Jo Nova 2011:

“Which four-year-old in 2018 will die because Gillard introduced a carbon tax instead of increasing medical research funding? Which father will die in 2022 who would have lived if we had doubled our funding for medical research?

What would we rather export ten years from now? Ten-year-old second-hand Chinese solar panels or an Australian made cure for prostate cancer?”

Joe Hockey 2014:

“As a result, it may be an Australian who discovers better treatments and even cures for dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart disease or cancer.   If we start investing now, this new and historic commitment in medical research may well save your life, or that of your parents, or your child.”

The timing is right and the incentives lean in the right direction (mostly)

Medical research is blossoming at a phenomenal, historic pace

The exponential curve in gene therapy, telomerase research, genomics and glycobiology is barely beginning. Four significant breakthroughs were made in medical research in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000. These were the kinds of breakthroughs people had worked for decades to make, and some were not predicted even a few years beforehand. The human genome project was finished five years ahead of schedule and for a fraction of the expected price.

Right now, a year of medical research really does make a difference. These are the areas where we will be left behind and it will hurt. These are the industries where we need to stay at the head of the pack, not just to save lives but to save the economy as well. Access Economics estimated in 2003 that every dollar invested in the Australian health research and development sector returned at least $5 in national economic development.

When government-funded Australian researchers discover treatments, we own vital intellectual property. We not only export products the world wants, we avoid being beholden to foreign patent holders. Some effective cancer drugs cost $2000 a week. Isn’t that the kind of research we want to own?

If we lead the world in medicine, the world is our oyster. If it turns out clean carbon technology is useful, we can buy it with the spare change from the profits of medical research. We know we need a cure for cancer. We don’t know if the rest of the world will want to pump CO2 underground 10 years from now.

When we lead the world in putting inefficient solar panels on roofs, we only help Chinese manufacturers and we win a race no one wants to win. You can’t export second-hand solar panels or resell old pink batts.

The full article

Shouldn’t medical research be privately funded?

I’m all ears for ideas. Let’s talk. Publicly funded science has plenty of pitfalls and failures. Sinclair Davidson and I agree on almost all of them (see his Catalaxy post). I’m sure there is a better way, but private funding has drawbacks too. Big Pharma profits and patents mean that many natural molecules get ignored — they can’t be patented, and there is no profit.

Even when there are profits, that doesn’t mean it will be funded. When David (Evans — the other half) studied at Stanford and worked in Silicon Valley, he came back to Australia around 1990 hoping to use his talent, only to discover that the Australian chip industry had basically died in the 1980s. It was the heady days of computing, of hardware, networking, software and the birth of the Internet, but there was no private research here, and no real government funding either. Left to private industry, the silicon chip sector in Australia is what it is today. So be it — apparently the world only needs a few centers for such development, but none of them are now here.

So what is different about  privately funded medical research? Should the government do more to encourage it? Yes absolutely. The Australian Government undertakes to keep all its citizens healthy, through medicare and disability payments, and has a financial interest in the health of its citizens. It does not undertake to keep its citizens in silicon chips, and has no financial interest in the chip industry. We can debate whether the Australian Government should be providing health care, but given that it is, isn’t it so much better to  to own the rights for patents and so on? We know we’ll shelling out billions for pharmaceuticals and medical devices ad infinitum — if our researchers discover the products we need, it could stop the budget going pear shaped.

It’s nice if we can establish a bigger manufacturing base here too. Think Cochlear and multiply.

Based in Sydney, Cochlear was formed in 1981 with finance from the Australian government to commercialise the implants pioneered by Dr Graeme Clark.[3][4] Today, the company holds over two-thirds of the worldwide hearing implant market,[5][6] with more than 250,000 people receiving one of Cochlear’s implants since 1982.[2]

Medical funding — good; Governments managing “Funds” — not-so-much

I like the medical funding, but not necessarily the vehicle. If I was PM would I choose to use the funds to pay off debt or reduce tax instead of setting up the fund? Quite possibly. Would I still want to find funds to put towards public medical research (even as flawed and biased as it is?)  Yes. But I’d also want a competing private sector too, and a paid sector of critics as well — one’s who serve the public and not the government (like the ABC and BBC science units do). Should we set up a “Fund” where governments manage and invest (is that how it works?) $20 billion in perpetuity? No. Governments should not be holding money or investing money — leave that to the markets.

(Speaking of government-investors, our local council had our rates money “invested” in Triple A bonds (what could possibly go wrong? ) and it’s all ended in tears and litigation. The sharpest financial sharks won the bond wars and they don’t seem to be the same guys running for the shire council. Memo to the council: Please lower our rates instead of investing, next time, eh?)

All in all, the Medical Research Fund — combined with a cut in renewables research is a net Good Thing in my opinion. Would it be better still to find a way to give the taxes back to the people and get the people to voluntarily fund the medical research they want? Sure. Send in your suggestions. It’s an open can of worms.

(For those who don’t know — I did my honours in Y-Chromosome markers for Muscular Dystrophy research, and I used to speak professionally about the coming medical revolution and how it will affect our lifespans, not to mention — complicate our retirement plans, and destroy our annuity tables.) I have a dream…

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