Prof Jane Speight highlights grant funding and its necessity to enable research to be undertaken.   

by Prof Jane Speight

Every year, Diabetes Australia provides a significant number of grants to enable research towards a cure and prevention, and to improve diabetes care. On 19 April, Professor Jane Speight spent the day attending a Strategic Planning Session focused on Diabetes Australia’s Research Program (DARP). Jane was invited to give two brief presentations at the meeting, the first focused on the context of diabetes research funding in Australia, and the second focused on the gaps and opportunities for behavioural research in diabetes.

To put research funding in context, diabetes is a designated national health priority, and according to an AIHW report (Figure 2.17), destined to become the leading cause of disease burden by 2023. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) currently provides the single largest source of funding for diabetes research. As Jane has previously discussed in an MJA Perspective, the NHMRC’s research expenditure over the past five years in diabetes was $0.36 billion. This may sound large but it is a woeful underinvestment compared to that made in cancer (approx. $0.9 billion) and cardiovascular (approx. $0.6 billion). Despite diabetes increasing in both prevalence and healthcare costs, NHMRC funding for diabetes has remained static at best.

In 2014, the Australian Government approved $35 million for a Special Research Initiative for Type 1 Diabetes administered by the Australian Research Council led by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF). The 2016 NHMRC funding round allocated $28.9 million (45 grants) to diabetes research. Finally, in the most recent $125 million NHMRC funding announcement (Feb 2017), diabetes received less than $400,000.

Set against this context, in 2017, Diabetes Australia awarded 50 diabetes research grants totalling $3.6 million. This included two prestigious Millennium grants ($150k each over 2 years) and two PhD scholarship top-ups, but the majority of awards were General Grants ($60k each over 1 year). Jane drew attention to a recent article in Nature, highlighting that the current funding environment is putting early career researchers, in particular, under pressure. She concluded that Diabetes Australia is a crucial funding body for most diabetes researchers, and urged those present to continue their vital work towards increasing the DARP funding pool and to advocate strongly for increased Government investment in diabetes research.

For the second of her presentations, Jane was asked to speak about the gaps and opportunities in behavioural research in diabetes. She highlighted a recent paper in Diabetic Medicine, which reported that only 8% of studies funded by national diabetes organisations in the past 5 years had a psychosocial / behavioural focus – including just 5% of those funded by Diabetes Australia. In a crude analysis of the 2016 NHMRC funding for diabetes ($28.9 million; 45 grants), she had found that just 10% had a psychosocial or behavioural focus (judged by grant title alone). She noted that this represented a significant gap and opportunity. She reflected that both Government and non-Government funding favours basic biomedical science and technological innovations, with the assumption (so it would seem) that these are the main requirements for better diabetes outcomes. However, as Jane discussed in her MJA Perspective, behavioural innovation is key to improving the health and quality of life of those living with (all types of) diabetes.

Other issues covered during the day included initiatives and campaigns for how to increase the research funding pool, as well as discussions to improve the processes around the Diabetes Australia Research grant-making scheme.

In summary, Jane spent a very worthwhile day highlighting the important role of Diabetes Australia in funding crucial research into diabetes, and the necessary role it must play in advocating for greater Government investment in diabetes research. She also made a strong case for behavioural research, which needs a much larger slice of the research funding pie (or there needs to be a much bigger pie!). While the holy grails of cure and prevention remain elusive, Jane argued that Diabetes Australia and other organisations need to devote greater funding to research to better support the people living with diabetes right now.

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