Research funding bias against respiratory medicine

Clinicians managing conditions with a high disability burden such as respiratory disease are unlikely to receive research funding from the government’s flagship $5 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), a new analysis shows.

The MRFF is biased towards fatal diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease which receive disproportionate amount of research funding compared to non-fatal conditions characterised by disability, according to researchers.

In a review of the distribution of $575 million in MRFF funding between 2016-2019, they found that the disease conditions receiving most funding were strongly associated with a high numbers of years of life lost such as cancer (16%) and cardiovascular disease (10%).

In contrast, diseases associated with the highest  levels of disability were less likely to receive funding.

For example, respiratory diseases which account for 10% of disability burden, received only 1.4% of MRFF funding. Similarly musculoskeletal conditions, which account for 25% of disability burden, received only 1% of total MRFF funding.

Other conditions with high rates of disability such as GI disease and skin diseases received 0.5% and 0.1% of MRFF funding.

In practice this meant that the five most highly funded disease conditions averaged 23 grants per condition, whereas the five mostly poorly funded diseases average only two grants per condition.

Writing in the MJA, the study authors including Professor Chris Maher of Sydney University and Professor Rachelle Buchbinder from Monash University said the discrepancy in funding was likely because very few of the MRFF funding calls specifically supported research relating to conditions predominantly associated with high disability burden rather than fatality burden.

Funding should not focus only on research aimed at avoiding deaths as this was at odds with the MRFF’s stated intention of  supporting medical research and innovation projects in key areas of healthcare, including disability, they said.

“The current approach to funding allocation may compromise the MRFF’s aim of improving the health and wellbeing of all Australians,” they wrote.

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