Experts say the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) needs more scrutiny. 

The MRFF was set up in 2015 using money from the federal healthcare budget. Successive LNP governments have used it to fund medical research using the interest earned by the money.

Last month, an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report called for the MRFF to offer fewer “targeted” grants – where the recipient was selected without competition.

Instead, it called for more competitive grants, saying; “Holding competitive merit-based grants rounds may help to avoid bias or perceptions of bias and improve transparency”. 

The ANAO says 19 of 33 submissions to its MRFF performance audit called for more clarity on how MRFF grant recipients are selected, while seven said “this gave rise to perceptions of bias”.

Over half of the MRFF’s funding goes to the Group of Eight universities, with their large medical research faculties.

Warwick Anderson, CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for 11 years until 2015, says the MRFF does not have the same governance controls that apply to the NHMRC.

“Every project that gets NHMRC funding has its worth ­reviewed by peer review from other scientists,” he said this week.

However, MRFF funding is decided by the federal Health Department and Health Minister. There is an expert group that gives recommendations, but there is “no clear indication whether these recommendations have influence or not”, Mr Anderson said. 

“The lack of transparency [at the MRFF] leads to the suspicion, whether true or not, that there is direct intervention after the scientific review process is finished.”

He called for a “holistic” research policy to be created so that funding from the MRFF, the NHMRC and the Australian Research Council is co-ordinated.

He also called for a balanced focus between fundamental and applied research, and sufficient support for young researchers.