Australia’s wasteful research grant system

Medical researchers in Australia spent 511 person years (one person working for more than 5 centuries!) worth of time preparing research-grant proposals for consideration for funding by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) last year (Herbert, Barnett & Graves: NATURE, Vol. 495, 21 MARCH 2013). The NHMRC is the largest funder of medical research in Australia. Only 20% of these applications were successful. Hence, the equivalent of four centuries of work (blood, sweat and tears) returned no benefit to researchers and wasted valuable research time.

The group of researchers from QUT surveyed a representative sample of Australian researchers. The average grant proposals were 80 to 120 pages long and preparing a new proposal took an average of 38 working days. Researchers usually submit 3 to 4 grant proposals for project grant funding every year. Extrapolating 
this to all 3,727 submitted proposals gives an estimated 550 working years of researchers’ time (95% confidence interval, 513–589), equivalent to a combined annual salary cost of AUS$66 million (US$68 million). This exceeds the total salary bill (AUS$61.6 million) at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a major medical- research centre that produced 284 publications last year.

The researchers conclude that our system is wasteful, needs reforming and alternative funding processes should be investigated.

Women with gynaecological cancer who would benefit from research have not been lucky at last year’s funding round. In 2012 only $7 million were spent on gynaecological cancer research. This amount is 40% less than what was spent in 2010. 

It gets even worse: From the $7 million, zero dollars ($0) were spent on uterine cancer, which is the most common gynaecological cancer in Australia and all countries of the developed world. In Australia, uterine cancer is a major issue because its incidence is increasing dramatically, its treatment still causes significant side effects and research is extremely difficult to conduct in Europe and the US, which leaves Australia in a privileged position to advance the science for a large number of women diagnosed with uterine cancer every year.

In the last 3 years I submitted a total of 15 project grant applications as the lead or co-applicant. According to the calculations presented by my colleagues at QUT, those 15 grant proposals have cost me a total of 570 days work. Only one of those 15 grant applications was successful. Last Tuesday, my colleagues and I submitted again four NHMRC research grant proposals (=152 days) with uncertain outcomes. 

It looks as if we need to take gynaecological cancer research funding in our own hands. If you wish to be active in generating support for gynaecological cancer research, please drop us an email at

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