Health and medical research helps to improve health and wellbeing through identifying, curing and preventing disease, injury and disability, and improving health services and their delivery (Research Australia 2019). In Australia, health and medical research has contributed to developments that have improved the health and wellbeing of people all over the world. These have included, for example, in-vitro fertilisation (Professor Carl Wood), the artificial heart valve (Dr Victor Chang), the role of Helicobacter pylori in peptic ulcer formation (Professor Barry Marshall and Emeritus Professor Robin Warren) and work to understand the role of antibodies in the immune system (Professor Sir Gustav Nossal) (AAMRI 2019).

Health and medical research can also lead to positive economic outcomes, such as a more productive workforce. It may also help to reduce the amount spent on health care, especially in the context of an ageing population.

What is health and medical research?

The definition of health and medical research can vary. Health and medical research encompasses a wide array of disciplines, activities, researchers and research institutions, and may include, for example, laboratory research, clinical trials or epidemiological studies (AAMRI 2019).

Health and medical research can take place in universities, hospitals and other medical institutions and companies by a range of professionals, including scientists, nurses, general practitioners and medical specialists (Research Australia 2019). Applied research conducted in some institutions, such as at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, may be considered health and medical research, but is outside the scope of this article.

How much is spent on health and medical research?

Health and medical research is funded by a wide range of government and non-government entities, including the Australian Government, state and territory governments, not-for-profit organisations and private businesses. Additionally, many individual Australians support health and medical research through philanthropic and charitable donations. In 2017–18, total spending on health and medical research accounted for about 0.3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and 3.0% of total health spending (AIHW 2019). These figures exclude commercially-oriented research funded by private businesses where the costs of the research are likely to be included in the prices charged for goods and services (for example, medications that have been developed and or supported by research activities).

Spending on health and medical research in Australia increased in real terms from $3.7 billion in 2007–08 to $5.6 billion in 2017–18 (AIHW 2019) (Figure 1). Of this, $4.4 billion (78%) was contributed by the Australian Government. State and territory governments contributed $0.8 billion (15%), and $0.4 billion (7.2%) was contributed by the non-government sector.
 

This line graph shows that from 2007–08 to 2017–18, total health spending on research increased from $3.7 billion to $5.6 billion. Over the same period, spending by the Australian Government was highest, increasing from $2.9 billion to $4.4 billion. State and territory government spending on research increased from $0.5 billion to $0.8 billion. Non-government spending on health research increased from $0.3 billion to $0.4 billion.

Australian Government funding

The Australian Government funds health and medical research directly through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and the Biomedical Translation Fund, and indirectly through block grants to universities and the Research and Development Tax Incentive. The Australian Government also contributes funding through grants to both public and private research institutions and organisations, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Cancer Australia. The Australian Government is provided with advice on matters related to research by NHMRC and the Australian Research Council.

Over the past 20 years, Australian Government spending on health and medical research varied from year to year but has increased since 2010–11. In 2017–18, just under three-quarters (74%) of the $4.4 billion spent by the Australian Government on health and medical research was for university-based research (AIHW 2019).

National Health and Medical Research Council

In 2018, the NHMRC spent $862 million across around 4,200 grants. Of this, $346 million (40%) was spent on basic science; $300 million (35%) on clinical medicine and science; $121 million (14%) on public health; and $54 million (6.3%) on health services research (Figure 2). Since 2000, the proportion of grant spending on clinical medicine and science has increased steadily, accompanied by a decreasing share spent on basic science (NHMRC 2019b). However, the multidisciplinary nature of research makes it difficult to delineate accurately different types of research in the health and medical field.

In addition to funding research, the NHMRC also gives guidance in research ethics and provides authoritative health advice translated from health research, such as healthy eating guidelines (NHMRC 2019a).
 

This line graph shows that since 2000, most NHMRC grant spending has been on Basic Science; however, the proportion of total grant spending in this area has been steadily decreasing. The proportion of spending on Clinical Medicine and Science and Health Services Research have been increasing. The proportion of spending on Public Health peaked in 2006, but then declined and plateaued from 2010.

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Medical Research Future Fund

The MRFF, established under the Medical Research Future Fund Act 2015, provides grants of financial assistance to support health and medical research and innovation to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians. This funding is in addition and complementary to that provided by the NHMRC.

In 2018–19, $206 million was funded through MRFF grants. Of this, more than half (55%) was spent on funding treatments, clinical trials and advanced health care and medical technologies. Further investment in the MRFF is budgeted over the next few years (Department of Health 2019).

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Organisation

The CSIRO is Australia’s national science research institution, and an independent Australian Government agency. In 2018–19, Australian governments (including state and territory governments) contributed $209 million to CSIRO in the form of co-investments or payments for consulting and services (not limited to health and medical research). Other revenue from governments totalled $835 million. In the same year, CSIRO invested $58 million in health objectives (4.3% of its total research investment spending) (CSIRO 2019).

State and territory government funding

Overall, over the past 20 years state and territory government spending on health and medical research has increased (AIHW 2019).

In 2017–18, Queensland spent the most on health and medical research ($250 million) and Tasmania the least ($6.4 million) (Figure 3). As a proportion of recurrent health expenditure, research expenditure was highest in the Australian Capital Territory (7.7%) and lowest in Tasmania (0.8%). In the same year, per person spending was highest in the Australian Capital Territory ($208) and lowest in Tasmania ($12) (Figure 3).
 

This bar chart shows that total spending on health and medical research by state and territory governments was highest in Queensland, followed by New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania. ACT had the highest health and medical research spending both per person and as a proportion of recurrent spending compared to other jurisdictions. 

Non-government funding

In 2017–18, individual Australians contributed about $3.0 million to health and medical research. Generally, over the past 20 years, individual spending on health and medical research has increased (AIHW 2019). These figures may underestimate actual contributions as data on individual contributions to health and medical research are difficult to capture.

Data on spending by charities who conduct or finance health and medical research are similarly difficult to obtain. As of December 2019, about 240 charities or groups with a health focus listed as their main objective, and research listed as a major activity, were registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. However, it is currently not possible to disaggregate the proportion of their activities and funds directed towards health and medical research.

Other non-government sources, including injury compensation insurers and other private funding, such as non-government organisations that own private hospitals, spent $0.4 billion on health and medical research in 2017–18. Of this, about two-thirds was on university-based research (AIHW 2019).

How does Australia compare internationally?

Since 2007, the proportion of the total government research and development budget dedicated to health and medical research has been higher than the median among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries (Figure 4). In 2017, 17% of the total government research budget in Australia was allocated to health research, which was the third-highest proportion among all OECD countries (OECD 2019).
 

This line graph shows that the proportion of total government research in Australia allocated to health research has ranged between 15% and 18% from 2007 to 2017. Over the same period, the OECD median has ranged between 6.6% and 8.1%.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on health and medical research, see:

References

ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission) 2019. ACNC 2017 annual information statement data (extract at 9 December 2019). Canberra: data.gov.au.

AAMRI (Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes) 2019. Fast facts on medical research. Melbourne: AAMRI.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019. Health expenditure Australia 2017–18. Cat. no. HWE 077. Canberra: AIHW.

CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) 2019. Annual report 2018–19. Canberra: CSIRO.

Department of Health 2019. Annual report 2018–19. Canberra: Department of Health.

NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) 2019a. About us. Canberra: NHMRC.

NHMRC 2019b. Summary tables 2000 to 2018. Canberra: NHMRC.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2019. Government budget allocations for R&D. Paris: OECD.

Research Australia 2019. Australian health and medical research. Sydney: Research Australia.