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Speech for Reception in support of Research Australia and presentation of plaques.\n

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Doctor Chris Roberts, Chairman, Research Australia Mr Peter Wills, Founder and Deputy Chairman Doctor Christine Bennett, Chief Executive Office, Research Australia Donors and sponsors Ladies and gentlemen

Marlena and I are delighted to welcome you to Admiralty House this evening.

Few causes are more important than those espoused by Research Australia. The growth of your alliance is testament to that, as was the vision of those of you who took a raw idea and turned it into a magnificent reality.

The setting up of an organisation that now enjoys support from more than 150 members and donors is no small outcome when arising from a suggestion made just five years ago.

In its field of health and medicine, Research Australia's interests are all encompassing, embracing basic scientific research and discovery, clinical and applied research and invention, healthy living and disease prevention. Underpinning this is the goal to make health and medical research a higher national priority and secure the dollar investment needed to fund both research and implementation of its findings.

When, as part of his groundbreaking review of health and medical research in 1999, Peter Wills recommended the setting up of a body to engage both the community and government in the importance of Australia's medical research effort, I wonder if he believed it would be realised with such widespread support.

A core concept of his report was a 'virtuous cycle of government, industry and research' working together. It is on this tenet that Research Australia bases its message that investment in Australia's research sector will improve the health and quality of people's lives for both present and future generations whilst strengthening the national economy by generating new business and industry.

Pivotal to meeting this challenge is the need for sustained interest at government level, increased private and corporate philanthropy and private industry investment. Undoubtedly, you are all eagerly anticipating the outcome of the taskforce that is presently looking at ways to encourage more investment by the private sector - both local and international - in Australian health and medical research.

As the Wills Report and the subsequent Investment Review of Health and Medical Research have shown, investment in Australian health and medical research makes good health and economic sense.


Australia is a world leader in health and medical research - on a per capita basis, our research output is twice the OECD average - yet we have a lower share of private investment in research than some other comparable countries.

A group such as Research Australia has a valuable role in helping instil investor confidence in Australian research.

Certainly, in terms of the success of home grown researchers we have a most enviable track record. Our numerically small nation is responsible for an impressive list of innovative developments and we have produced nine Nobel Laureates in science and medicine. The claim has been made that this is the highest proportion of medical/scientist Nobel Laureates per head of population in the world.

One of those Nobel Laureates, Howard Florey, remarking on penicillin, which was first issued commercially during the second World War, noted that 'had it not been for the enterprise and energy with which the American manufacturing firms tackled the large scale manufacturing of the drug ... there would certainly have been insufficient penicillin by D Day in Normandy to treat all severe casualties.'

It could be easy to overlook that whilst we need the genius of our researchers to develop new means of combating illness and disease, we also need the where-with-all of the investor and the entrepreneur to transform discovery into reality.

And the challenge is ongoing. Penicillin is but one example. The development of an immunity to the drug means we must break new barriers in the search for alternatives. Another challenge is the serious increase in chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria. In some parts of the world, malaria is resistant to all four leading front-line drugs used against it.

The fight against malaria is another area in which Australian researchers have led the world. Australian scientists played a vital role in the recently completed international collaboration to map the malaria genome, and have been at the forefront of unravelling the unique biochemistry of the malaria parasite, and in documenting the crucial molecular events in the manifestation of the deadly cerebral malaria.

This Australian expertise is desperately needed. It is estimated that 2.3 billion people or more than one-third of the world's people, are at risk of malaria. A child dies of malaria every 3 seconds. And as if that was not alarming enough, scientists warn that global warming might increase the prevalence of malaria and create even more virulent strains of the disease.

And then there is the newer scourge of HIV/Aids. More than 40 million people have Aids and new infections run at five million a year. Some three million people a year die of Aids. Few catastrophes more graphically demonstrate the truth of American medical scientist and philanthropist Mary Lasker's observation, ‘If you think research is expensive, try disease.'

Australia reacted quickly in responding to Aids. High level research programs, including the search for a vaccine, were quickly instituted as were education and support programs. We have also taken a prominent role in the international response, in particular through government partnerships with non government agencies, working throughout south-east Asia and the Pacific.

Interestingly, the concept of corporate social responsibility and the need for public sector business partnerships in medical and health issues has been widely recognised in many parts of the world in the fight against Aids.


With the impact of the epidemic on the workforce and markets in Africa and Asia, the fostering of public/private partnerships is seen as a key to combating the disease. Many of the world's biggest corporations have become influential advocates for improved campaigns to counter Aids and many have installed in their own companies extensive health and information programs.

Of course much more needs to be done, but without the involvement of these partnerships across all levels, any hope of progress would be much bleaker.

Indeed there is enormous value in joint research projects with other nations. We should not miss the opportunities to broaden and deepen our ties as partners, not just for our individual and joint benefit, but to also contribute meaningfully to improving the global condition.

In looking at Australian achievements in health and medicine, there is one area in which we have become an undoubted world leader but from which we can take little comfort. This is obesity. If the current trend continues, it is estimated that by 2010, 70% of Australians will be above their healthy weight range.

Particularly distressing is the incidence in children. Research at the University of Sydney reveals that a proportion of overweight teenagers, are, by the age of 15, showing signs of vascular and liver cell illnesses previously only detected in adults. An increasing number of obese children are contracting Type 2 diabetes. Given that Australia has also led the world in diabetes research, this is a cruel irony.

The culprits are many and varied; sedentary lifestyles, television, reliance on the motor car, longer working hours, less recreation and convenience foods. This is another problem whose only solution lies in a coordinated approach from all sectors of society.

So these and other challenges will require our collective endeavours. In some areas we have the research, yet we need the collective effort to put our knowledge into practice. In other areas there is still much research to be done. It is only on the basis of the top class research at which so many of our people have excelled that we can start looking for solutions.

One cannot ignore the potential of centres such as Singapore’s “Biopolis” which I visited in 2004 - a multibillion-dollar, high-tech medical research institute working on a number of areas, including cancer and genome research. The really significant feature of the Biopolis is not the venue, as such, but the fact that Singapore is spending $390 million in total on scholarships in order to attract world-class PhDs to staff it.

As the Research Australia public opinion poll released in January this year found, Australians endorse spending money on medical research. That 72 per cent recognised that health and medical research made a difference to their lives is a telling figure, as was the finding that only 22 per cent would prefer tax cuts rather than putting surplus government funding into medical research.

Despite these figures, I must say I wholeheartedly agree with your strategy to further alert Australians to the contribution health and medical research makes to their lives. It is disconcerting that more than 50 per cent of Australians do not know the names of any of our Australian Nobel Laureates and that many have little conception of the extent to which life saving medical breakthroughs have emanated from our own research labs.


I commend your strategies to reverse this. I commend too those from our business sector who have joined with you. Julie White from the Macquarie Bank Foundation put the role of corporate philanthropy in perspective when, speaking of the corporate world's obligation to work for the betterment of the communities in which they operate, she said in one of your recent newsletters, that social support is now recognised as a shared responsibility.

Moreover, as she pointed out, there are benefits to corporations engaging in the community in that they gain greater insight into the society in which they operate.

I applaud all those who have chosen to support Research Australia and I am delighted to have presented the plaques to supporters of this most worthy endeavour.