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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
17/10/2012
Estimates
HEALTH AND AGEING PORTFOLIO
National Health and Medical Research Council

National Health and Medical Research Council

[12:28]

CHAIR: Welcome.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: The 2010-11 actual expense in your annual report of that year? Time permitting, I will chase that up if you do not have it there. What about the 2011-12 financial year—your actual expense? Has it come in very much as was foreshadowed in the portfolio budget statement?

Mr Kingdon : Yes, we expect it to be very much on target—well, it was on target, sorry.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: And you have only one program?

Mr Kingdon : That is correct.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: In relation to 2012-13, will you be on budget, Mr Kingdon? Are you tracking to be on budget?

Mr Kingdon : We believe we are at the moment, yes.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Are there any changes since the 2012-13 budget?

Mr Kingdon : No.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Has there been any variation in staff numbers? Are you going up in staff numbers?

Mr Kingdon : We are going down, from—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: The estimated average staff numbers in the portfolio budget statement are: 33, 2011-12; and then: 2012-13 budget, 41.

Mr Kingdon : Not staff numbers. The staff numbers for NHMRC were 225 for 2011-12, and we are reducing to 215 for 2012-13.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Sorry—225 down to?

Mr Kingdon : Two hundred and fifteen.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Over the forward estimates, Mr Kingdon, do those figures stand?

Mr Kingdon : Yes, they do.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: You released draft dietary guidelines for consultation between December 2011 and February 2012, and I want to touch on some of those. How much funding has been allocated to revise the Australian dietary guidelines?

Mr Kingdon : I would have to take that on notice. I have not got that broken down at that level, and it is an ongoing cost.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Perhaps you could provide those details to me. Was there any particular feedback through public consultation that initiated the draft appendix dietary guidelines through an environmental lens, or was it purely a decision of the working group?

Prof. Anderson : No, it was a very strong aspect of the feedback. I think around one third of the feedback identified that—72, I am told. And of course there has been an environmental flavour to the guidelines for over 20 years now. Certainly it was quite a strong component of the 2003 version of the guidelines, which were then called Food for health. We had always intended to address this, but of course there are other portfolios that have an interest in this area and we have been in conversation with them and are consulting them about this particular appendix as well. I am sure you will understand that dieticians and, indeed, general practitioners are often asked by their patients who come with a concern for the environment—or other concerns, actually, in our community—how to interpret the guidelines against their particular concerns. So we hope that this appendix will be helpful to dieticians and GPs and, unlike the more general comment about the environmental sustainability issues in the previous version, this one is very much linked to the six or so specific guidelines, so that the health practitioner can look at the guideline and then have some idea of how to help their clients and patients.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Is there any information on the number of additional submissions that have been received on the appendix?

Prof. Anderson : It has not closed yet. I think the first couple of days in November is the closing date.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Is there any capacity to revise the guidelines or appendix as a result of this latest round of consultation?

Prof. Anderson : Yes. Although the council has agreed with the bulk guideline at its last meeting, of course we will, as we always do, take into account every bit of feedback we have had from this consultation, revise that appendix as appropriate, and present that also to our council for their consideration and recommendation.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Is there a clear indication of when the guidelines will be provided to the minister, and will the release be in early 2013 as scheduled?

Prof. Anderson : That is our current expectation, provided nothing unexpected comes out of the public consultation, and provided our council agrees to the final version at its late November meeting.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: How do you respond to the criticism—say, from various industry people—that environmental considerations did not have any place in dietary guidelines?

Prof. Anderson : I think the first thing I would like to emphasise is that there have been such environmental considerations in the Australian dietary guidelines for a long time, including—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: But not the predominant feature of the guidelines, Professor Anderson. I think that is really where the public criticism has come—that it is more environment than dietary.

Prof. Anderson : I do not think there will be anything more about environment in the new version than in this version, the previous one, really. There is a whole separate section in this one at the back, and this will be just an appendix—I think a fair critic would say less free-ranging than the previous version.

Ms Halton : That was a terrible pun, Mr Anderson.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: 'Free ranging'! Yes!

Ms Halton : Dreadful.

Prof. Anderson : I usually get some rebuke from the secretary.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I always think 'diet' is 'die' with a T!

Prof. Anderson : I would just make the point that I made before: that we think it would be unreasonable to leave health professionals—these guidelines are for health professionals—hanging when their clients ask about this. We hear from them frequently, and so much of the feedback says, 'You've really got to do something here; you've got to include some comment about how the individual guidelines—"Eat more of this; eat less of that"—affect environmental concerns.' What our expert committee has said is that eating in accord with the Australian Dietary Guidelines is itself minimising impact on the environment. So the clinical guidelines themselves do that. But I do think that it is an entirely reasonable thing for health professionals to expect some guidance from us so that they can give that to their clients.

Ms Halton : And, Senator, if you go back to the 2003 guidelines—I do not know whether or not you have seen a copy—and go to the back of the document—and I have to say I have looked at this—at the back of the document, at page 279 there is a section called, 'Dietary guidelines and the sustainability of food systems'. I suspect that a lot of the people who are currently commenting on the appendix in this version have actually never gone back to this version and had a look at it, because, in a way, this is a broader and less helpful, less focused document, but I think most of the people who are currently saying, 'Where did this come from?' have not reminded themselves that what they have in this version is actually a much more targeted and useful document than probably was here. I am not going to make any observations about this particular document, but I will leave you to read it and form your own conclusion.

Senator MADIGAN: I refer to the wind farms and the peer review. Along with Professor Simon Chapman, Professor Geoffrey Leventhall was the peer reviewer of the NHMRC's 2009 Rapid Review. At the time of his peer reviewing of the Rapid Review, was the NHMRC aware that in 2003 Professor Leventhall had written a literature review for the UK department of food and rural affairs which confirms the existence of symptoms identical to what is referred to as 'wind turbine syndrome'. The new review by the NHMRC excluded the existing evidence of personal testimonies from affected residents. Professor Anderson, in your oral testimony to the Senate inquiry you stated—and this is from the Hansard—on 31 March:

We are encouraging scientists—epidemiologists and others—to think about this area and use the information that the anecdotes and individual patients have provided to better design epidemiological approaches to investigate the issues. Anecdotes are very valuable ways of honing the questions to be asked.

On what basis has the new NHMRC review panel decided to exclude such important evidence which would appear to be contrary even to your testimony to the Senate inquiry?

Prof. Anderson : I acknowledge your interest in this issue. Such input will not be excluded from the entire process. You are talking quite rightly about the role that the expert committee itself will do. Of course, the next step is once we have information from them, and the step we always take at the NHMRC is to open it up for public consultation. I am sure that at that stage there are no exclusions there. We take every piece of submission at that time. So I can assure you that every submission made, once we go to public consultation, will be taken into account by the expert committee first and then by my council.

All NHMRC committees, of which we usually have a few dozen working on various issues, always define what is in and out in terms of what they will consider as part of their work. Normally for our committees it is pretty much confined to the peer review literature but on this particular issue we have invited members of the public to provide any other evidence that they felt the committee should look at. That is a bit more broad put than our normal process. We have had many submissions from the public about additional or what we sometimes call the grey literature. So it is somewhere between peer review on one hand and anecdote on the other. Last time I looked I think it was running at about 40 additional pieces of this grey literature had been provided.

To return to your key point. Whenever we release the panel's work for public consultation there will be no restrictions on the input that can occur at that stage for the NHMRC to look at.

Senator MADIGAN: The announcement of the members in the new NHMRC panel was made on the morning of the last attendance at the NHMRC at Senate estimates. Understandably this made it almost impossible to ask questions about each of the members or the criteria by which they were selected. Can I assume a declaration of any real or perceived conflict of interest was required from each of those being considered for these positions, and that anyone with a conflict of interest or with a pre-existing bias towards the issue of wind turbines and health would have been excluded?

Prof. Anderson : Firstly, I made the appointments. Secondly, we made the appointments on the basis of the balance of expertise we felt was needed to do the job given the different health issues that have been suggested. Thirdly, it is my understanding that all the panel members' interests are disclosed on our website in the public domain. Part of the reason for being very clear on the process they are going to follow—and, again, that is in the public domain—is that people with genuine differences of view on evidence—and scientists do often read evidence in different ways and disagree—is addressed through following the protocol that we have set up for the committee. If there are any questions about those interests that have been disclosed, I am happy for you to bring them to my attention.

Senator SMITH: Professor, you would also be aware of Senator Back's long interest in this issue. He is unable to be here but I do have a number of questions on his behalf. Has the NHMRC received any research applications related to the study of wind turbines on human health? If it has, can a list of those funding applications be provided?

Prof. Anderson : I acknowledge Senator Back's interest and Senator Adams's beforehand. The fact is that we have not received any applications for research.

Senator SMITH: Senator Back refers to the snapshot of the NHMRC Windfarms and Human Health Project and the indicative timeframes. The NHMRC committed to updating the literature review of adverse health effects on 20 October 2011 during questioning from the late Senator Judith Adams. I think you commented that it would be completed and provided to your council by June of this year. Can you provide us with an update on that?

Prof. Anderson : I have failed to keep to that timetable. You will be aware from the answer that Mr Kingdon gave Senator Fierravanti-Wells that we have fewer staff than we had. We have really one staff on this particular issue and, with the level of public interest, which is understandable and welcome, and the move to open up the submissions to the expert committee to submissions from the community we are running a bit behind on this project. The committee is in place, the systematic review process is underway, but I do think we are going to be in the first quarter of next year before we are able to have our council have a look at the product.

Senator SMITH: Is the NHMRC aware of a post made by Professor Chapman on the ABC Drum opinion report website which pre-empts the findings of the NHMRC review panel? Do I need to read that to you?

Prof. Anderson : No, I am familiar with it. I am not quite sure what the question is.

Senator SMITH: Perhaps you could provide a commentary or a reflection on what Professor Chapman said.

Prof. Anderson : If I were required to provide a commentary on all the people who posted blogs or comments about the NHMRC, Senator, I would have even less time to sleep than I do. I think it is well known that Dr Chapman, who is a very distinguished Australian researcher, has a strong interest in this area. Academic freedom being what it is, I am sure that his employing organisation would not wish to restrict his activities in any way, but, of course, he is an employee of the University of Sydney and not of the NHMRC. I do want to emphasise that he is a very distinguished Australian researcher and often gets funding from us for a whole range of activities, though not in this particular area.

Senator SMITH: Is the NHMRC aware that infrasound and low frequency noise have now been measured inside the homes of people with symptoms of adverse health effects by independent acousticians in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria?

Prof. Anderson : This is the sort of information we are receiving as part of the call for the wider so-called grey literature. It is only grey in the sense that it is not peer reviewed. This information will be taken into account and, indeed, there is considerable expertise with one member of the expert review panel. The infrasound issue has been raised with us a lot and certainly will be an important part of the consideration of the work.

Senator SMITH: Did the NHMRC receive any material from Clean Energy Council for the rapid review?

Prof. Anderson : The rapid review; the 2009 one? Not to my knowledge. This was a trawl of the literature that we did, and we decided what would be there. I could be corrected, but I am almost certain that is not the case. Professor McCallum is assuring me that I am correct.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 12:49 to 13:51