Australia’s AOD landscape: Reflections on 15 years serving on the Board of a national research institute

June 2024

It is a lofty goal.

“Conduct and disseminate high quality research that supports evidence informed policy, strategies and practice approaches to prevent and minimise alcohol and other drug-related health, social and economic harms among individuals, families and communities.”

It is a lofty goal, but one that NDRI has met so effectively.

The mission of the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University (NDRI) provides the base, along with its sister national research centres in NSW, QLD and South Australia, for a key building block in the development of sensible drug policy in Australia and internationally.

Having the privilege to be part of influencing policy makers through sound research was the reason I remained involved with NDRI for such a long period. Working with such professional research academics and support staff over a decade and a half provided me with important learnings and  insights of the impact sound evidence has on decision making.

NDRI is an outstanding organisation that has built on its own strengths and enhanced these through collaboration with a multitude of community and government partners as well as with the other alcohol and other drug (AOD) research centres at University of NSW, Flinders University and University of Queensland. The financial support of the Federal Department of Health has been ongoing, since the mid-1980s in NDRI’s case alongside funding from the respective university hosts, such as Curtin.

And, boy, have those funders ever received ‘bang for their buck’.

There are so many areas where NDRI has influenced AOD policy. Looking back over my time on the NDRI Board, the following select examples come to mind.

Alcohol policy

In alcohol, ensuring policy makers could counter much of the business level influence with sound evidence on health, for example, was work led by Professor Tanya Chikritzhs. Alcohol is not a benign substance, and Tanya’s leadership highlighting health issues could be illustrated, inter alia, by recognition as an academic leader and, more widely, her media presence.

Alcohol policy is fraught with challenges. This powerful industry works hard to protect itself from government interference. The corridors of power in Parliament House in Canberra are busy with their lobbyists (in 2018, Curtin Professor Mike Daube identified that there were 66 direct and  indirect alcohol industry related lobbyists).

Julia Stafford reinforced this influence in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, examining alcohol industry submissions to policy consultations in Australia over a five year period. Almost all presented a distorted view of the scientific evidence, including misuse of evidence and denial of the effectiveness of strategies supported by evidence.

Social justice and equity

The joy of providing support and an oversight to NDRI’s academic staff is they are focussed on using their expertise and research to work towards better health outcomes for all Australians.

Engagement on social justice and equity form a key value of NDRI. Issues concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia are illustrative. Professors Dennis Gray and Edward (Ted) Wilkes ensured a close working relationship with First Nations people as a fundamental methodology, and this has remained a foundation of the team’s work under Dr Jocelyn Jones, the first Indigenous leader of NDRI’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research program.

Importantly, research at NDRI is not siloed. Annual reports reflect work on a range of diverse AOD issues including alcohol, cannabis, nitrous oxide and heroin that invariably focuses on the most vulnerable in our society.

Focus on prevention of harm

Associate Professor Nyanda McBride and colleagues developed an evidence-based alcohol  education program for use in schools. Evidence on ‘just say no’ approaches to education is largely negative. Nyanda’s evidence based approach has been used internationally, and its success is illustrated by the funding provided through European Varela to support the SHAHRP program in Brazil.

The work and leadership of Professor Simon Lenton, the current NDRI Director, and Professor Paul Dietze in working with stakeholders across the country and internationally in researching, providing evidence, and advocating for naloxone to prevent heroin overdose deaths has been formidable. Review of the much broader availability of naloxone in a number of jurisdictions is providing further evidence of the importance of this sensible approach in preventing drug related harms and deaths.

Similarly, the leadership of Professor Steve Allsop, the other of the two NDRI Directors during my time on the Board, and his links to policy makers have also been instrumental to the Institute’s impact on policy and practice.

It has been a great honour to work with so many committed people over the past 15 years. Stopping for a moment to reflect on that time, and as NDRI embarks on its fifth decade of completing high quality AOD research, also makes it clear how critical continued support for the outputs of NDRI and the other national centres will be to both keeping Australia ‘punching above its weight’ in AOD policy and practice internationally, and to making the world a better and healthier place for all.

Adjunct Professor Michael Moore AM PhD has been a member of the NDRI Board since 2009 and chair of the Board from 2019. He is a former ACT Health Minister and Past President of the World Federation of Public Health.