Over the past 18 years, the South African (SA) Ministry of Health has committed to allocate 2% of the national health budget to research, while the National Health Research Policy (2001) proposed that the health research budget should be 2% of total public sector health expenditure. A review was conducted by the National Health Research Committee (NHRC) in 2014 to determine whether these goals had been met, using available data up to 2009/10. It revealed that public sector health research funding remained below 2% of the national health budget, supporting the perception of reduced public sector health research funding.
To provide an update on the previous review to investigate changes in the health research landscape since 2009/10 and whether goals have been met.
Various publicly available sources of information on public and private expenditure on health research in SA were used to investigate health research funding and expenditure. In addition, questionnaires were sent to 35 major national and international funders of health research in SA to obtain data on the level of funding provided and the fields of research funded.
Total health research expenditure in SA was ZAR6.9 billion in 2016/17, or 19.2% of gross expenditure on research and development, with 1.7% of the ZAR38.6 billion National Department of Health budget from National Treasury being spent on health research through the South African Medical Research Council (ZAR658 million), corresponding to 0.4% of the consolidated government expenditure on health. However, although the total government plus science council spend on health research in 2016/17 was ZAR1.45 billion, this represents just 0.033% of the gross domestic product (GDP), thus remaining well below the aspirational target of 0.15% of the GDP set by the NHRC in 2014. Based on feedback from the funders, the estimated baseline health research funding in 2016/17 was in excess of ZAR4.1 billion, which is considerably higher than many researchers may realise. Three-quarters of this funding originated from foreign sources, suggesting both strengths and opportunities for health research in SA, but also highlighting increasing dependence on foreign funding. Notably, the majority of funders approached were not able to readily break down expenditure according to disease area.
Health research funding has changed significantly since our previous review, although the government's own commitments to it remain unmet. Improved mechanisms to track health research expenditure are urgently required for better alignment of funding priorities and increased co-ordination between science councils in health research funding.