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City applicants dominate rural stream of Australian health fund

Medical Research Future Fund statistics highlight need to boost regional capacity, government says

The vast majority of the Medical Research Future Fund’s spending on rural, regional and remote health research has actually gone to city-based organisations, an Australian government report has shown.

More than 96 per cent of applications to the national fund under the priority spending category came from metropolitan organisations, the report on 11 August said. Only A$86.5 million of the A$297m covered by the report was allocated to research organisations based outside cities.

“This highlights the need to support the entire rural, regional and remote ecosystem so that it has the capacity to develop and submit competitive research grant applications,” the report said.

It recommended more promotion of the fund’s availability to regional health researchers, and more collaboration to allow regional health workers to take part in research.

The report covered both a specific funding stream for regional areas and funding for other priorities, such as Indigenous Australians, that went to regional research.

Mental health support lacking

The spending category has so far been heavily skewed towards clinical trials. The priority was first introduced in 2017 and the report showed that more than half of the A$297m spent went to trials. This included a major initiative in 2019 that put around A$124m into programmes to increase access to clinical trials nationwide, including via telehealth. Health services research was the next highest category, at A$53m. Mental health research made up less than 1 per cent of the spending, at A$2.4m.

“There are clear areas that receive limited Medical Research Future Fund funding” in regional health research, the report said, singling out mental health, workforce development, and prevention and behavioural intervention.

The impact of the grants that have been given so far is unclear, with the report noting that “many rural, regional and remote projects have yet to be completed, so evaluation of progress for these projects was based on potential, rather than realised, measures of success”.