Crossing the bridge – working to translate research into health policy and practice

NHMRC recently held a meeting with Chairs of the NHMRC Research Translation Faculty Steering groups. The text below is an edited version of my introductory comments.

The NHMRC Research Translation Faculty is unique in the world. I wouldn’t want you to think that we are making it up as we go along, but we really are in unchartered waters.

I thank the Steering group Chairs and the couple of thousands of colleagues who are members of our Faculty and are contributing to this.

We’re tapping into the inherent altruism in the health and medical research community. Most people get into health and medical research because they want to make a difference to the health of Australians.

The Faculty and the tasks we have asked it to do are opportunities for people who are funded by NHMRC to contribute more directly to health policy development and impact through our Council.

The easy word people use is ‘translation’ and this word means many different things to different people. NHMRC does have specific funding vehicles for research translation, particularly the Practitioner Fellowship scheme, Partnerships for Better Health Projects, Centres of Research Excellence and a few others.

But this is a different perspective on ‘translation’. What we have asked the Faculty to do for most of the major health issues identified in our Strategic Plan is to brainstorm ideas and then form a view on one issue, a ‘Case for Action’ that is likely to be transformative in policy or practice. We know that what we are asking the Faculty to do is a bit of an “ask” and that researchers are dipping into their own resources to make this work.

I hope that some of these Cases for Action will be ready for our Council this year, through one of the NHMRC Principal advisory committees, either Health Care Committee or Prevention and Community Health Committee, and with input from our Indigenous Caucus and our Community and Consumer Advisory Group.

We do plan to publish the Cases for Action on our website once Council has considered them.

But as academics, the Steering Groups members will be free to publish any of this material, consistent with the principles in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research.

The important thing for the Steering Groups to have in their minds is that the Cases for Action are actually proposals.

There has been some understandable confusion around that. The Cases for Action are not really products, they are proposals to the Council of NHMRC for the NHMRC to do something.

The proposal should not be mainly ‘We need more research in this area’; however a targeted research call is one possible proposal that the Groups can put forward.

However, if the Steering groups are going to put forward a proposal for a targeted call for research it will need to meet the criteria for an NHMRC targeted call for research.

If they do so, one important criteria is that, whatever the research that might be needed, it cannot be supported by one of our current competitive schemes. These schemes do cover most areas and particularly the Partnership Projects scheme may be the scheme most appropriate when policy-related research is needed.

Secondly, there needs to be justification for the specific need for this research in an Australian context, which essentially limits the call to Australian health services research, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, because we have our own unique health system and most other aspects of health are not Australian-specific.

Finally, health and medical research funding bodies around the world are all focussing more this decade on the benefits and outcomes of research, not just the inputs. I meet every six months with my equivalents at US NIH and UK MRC, Canada’s CIHR, Japan, South Korea, European countries and so on, and all of these government medical research funding bodies recognise the increased expectations that  with the current state of the world’s economy, research needs to be mindful of benefiting the people of countries who, after all, provide the money.

None of these international funders have research translation faculties, so ours is a unique activity.  As you know NHMRC does not have intramural research like most others do. They can tap into the people they already employ. So the Faculty is a more creative way that we can tap into the skills of the Australian research sector.

One of the aims for the NHMRC of the Faculty is to address the big gap there is, certainly a perceived gap, between the focus of researchers and the focus of those that administer health i.e., the Chief Medical Officers, Secretaries and policy makers in Commonwealth and State and Territory health departments. What we’re hoping is that this Faculty will help bring the research side and the policy side together in key areas of health.

The Faculty members are not guinea pigs but they are certainly pioneers as we try to build a bridge across the valley between research and policy here in Australia.

Professor Warwick Anderson AM
Chief Executive Officer, NHMRC