Just 574 clinical trials were started in Australia in 2010, the lowest number since 2001 and 99 fewer than in 2009, say new government figures.

The number of new clinical trials in Australia has fallen by an average of 13% every year since 2007, and the new figures  -  contained within the Therapeutic Goods Administration's Half-Yearly Performance Report - show, first the first time ever, three consecutive annual falls in trial numbers and a 15% drop in the past year, according to industry group Medicines Australia.

"These are not the kinds of records we want to be setting," said Medicines Australia's chief executive Brand Shaw, who added that it is now "crunch time" for the industry. "The very future of Australia's A$1 billion clinical research industry is at stake - I don't think that is putting it too strongly," he said.

The government must deliver on the promise it made in early March to deliver by July the recommendations of the report presented to it in early March by the Clinical Trials Action Group, a panel established by the government with a remit to arrest the decline in clinical trial activity in Australia.

"The competition for R&D investment from countries in Asia and Europe is extremely fierce. Only with the right policy settings can we hope to grow our R&D industry and keep cutting-edge medical science in Australia," said Dr Shaw.

Clinical trials also save Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) A$100 million a year, "so the more clinical trials we conduct in Australia, the greater the saving for the taxpayer," he added.

In its report, the Action Group makes a range of recommendations aimed at: - improving the timeliness of ethics and research governance review; - providing for cost recovery of efficient clinical trials; - ensuring that trials can take advantage of the developing e-health system; - improving patient recruitment; - facilitating better national coordination and greater collaboration across clinical trials networks; and - progressing key clinical trial issues.

Welcoming these recommendations, Innovation Minister Kim Carr said that their adoption would be "an important microeconomic reform" that would "improve productivity and have benefits for patients, industry, researchers and governments."

"The industry estimates the annual economic worth of clinical trials to be in the order of A$450 million. Trials provide a significant number of high-skill, high-wage jobs for Australians," Senator Carr added.