Government support for biotechnology

4.8 The Australian Government’s strong support for biotechnology suggests that the pressure of change is likely to continue. In common with many developed countries, Australia has a policy, expressed in the Federal Government’s Innovation Statement,[18] which places great reliance for our economic future on the emerging new technologies, including human genetic technology. Significant steps have been taken to implement this policy:

  • The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans has set down a comprehensive national ethical regulatory framework for the conduct of research in general and genetic research in particular.[20] (See Part D of this Report.)

  • Biotechnology Australia is a whole of government initiative to coordinate efforts to develop biotechnology for the benefit of the Australian community.[22]

  • The Ralph Report on taxation reform has recommended reforms to income tax arrangements to ensure that the Australian taxation regime for biotechnology companies is consistent with other OECD nations, as a means of encouraging investment in Australian biotechnology.

  • A major review of health and medical research in Australia has been undertaken. The Wills Report refers particularly to the need to take advantage of advances in biotechnology to improve the health of the Australian population, to build the economy and to create valuable jobs.[25] It recognises that this window of opportunity would close given the pace of change unless Australia acts promptly.

  • In January 2002, the Federal Government announced that, as part of a shift towards setting national priority areas for research, one-third (approximately $170 million) of the Australian Research Council’s funding grants for 2003 would be reserved for four designated key areas of scientific research, one of which is genome/phenome research.

4.9 These initiatives recognise that the preconditions for economic growth in the genetic technology sector include reasonable access to research tools (including human biological material), security of investment, and effective and appropriate regulation.

4.10 A central tenet of Biotechnology Australia is to ensure that ‘consistent with safeguarding human health and ensuring environment protection, that Australia captures the benefits of biotechnology for the Australian community, industry and environment’.[27] The former federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Hon Dr Michael Wooldridge MP, emphasised

the driving imperative of identifying and managing any risks associated with the technology before all other matters, only then can we be truly confident about reaping the broader benefits.[28]

4.11 Genetic science and technology is developing apace, and will provide the basis for other applied sub-branches of medical and scientific research, including bio-informatics,[29] proteomics,[30] and pharmacogenetics.[31] It is of equal importance that these rapid developments are accompanied by informed consideration of the ethical, legal and social implications of the science, as well as the development of secure and appropriate ethical and regulatory frameworks.[32]

[18] Commonwealth of Australia, Backing Australia’s Ability: An Innovation Action Plan for the Future, <www.backingaus.innovation.gov.au/default.htm>, 24 July 2002.

[19] Prepared by the Australian Health Ethics Committee under the relevant provisions of the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (Cth) and endorsed by the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee, the Australian Research Council and the various learned Academies in 1999.

[20] Ibid, Principles 16.1–16.23 and the section on Human Tissue (Principle 15).

[21] Involving the Commonwealth Departments of Industry, Tourism and Resources; Environment and Heritage; Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Health and Ageing; and Education, Science and Training.

[22] Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Biotechnology: Progress and Achievements, <www.biotech
nology.gov.au/Industry_Research/National_Strategy/prop?biotech_prog_achiev.pdf>, 16 July 2002.

[23]Review of Business Taxation, A Tax System Redesigned: More Certain, Equitable and Durable: Report (1999), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra (Ralph Report).

[24] Health and Medical Research Strategic Review, The Virtuous Cycle, Working Together for Health and Medical Research (1999), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra (Wills Report).

[25] Ibid, 1.

[26] See Dr Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, Science and Training, Minister for Education Science and Training, Backing Australia’s Ability — Funding for Research Priorities Announced, <www.dest.
gov.au/ministers/nelson/jan02/n06_290102.htm>, 20 February 2003. See also D Illing, ‘Nelson says Research Quality Won’t Suffer’, The Australian, 6 February 2002. The other designated areas are nano- and bio-materials; complex/intelligent systems; and photon science and technology.

[27] See Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Biotechnology: Progress and Achievements, <www.biotech
nology.gov.au/Industry_Research/National_Strategy/prop?biotech_prog_achiev.pdf>, 16 July 2002.

[28] In the Second Reading Speech for the Gene Technology Bill 2000 (Cth). See Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 22 June 2000, 18104 (The Hon Dr Michael Wooldridge (Minister for Health and Aged Care)).

[29] Harnessing the power of new information technology to advances in genetic science and technology.

[30] Studying the genetic influences on protein production.

[31] Tailoring drug remedies to an individual or group’s particular genetic characteristics.

[32] See Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Biotechnology: Progress and Achievements, <www.biotech
nology.gov.au/Industry_Research/National_Strategy/prop?biotech_prog_achiev.pdf>, 16 July 2002.