Last updated June 7, 2017 at 4:04 pm
Who reviews the reviewers? Experts give their two cents on a major overhaul to research funding.
The National Health and Medical Research Council have announced large scale changes to how they fund Australia’s medical and health research. There’s a lot to digest, but it seems that a number of the moves seem to be to ease the pressure of applying for grants which has traditionally been a laborious process with an extremely low success rate.
The new structure sees four types of grants and a limit on the number of grants that researchers can apply for and hold at any one time. While some grants will still focus on the track record of the applicant, the assessment of Ideas Grants, which are awarded to research projects addressing a specific question, will instead focus primarily on the quality of the science, innovation and significance of the proposed research. There will also be large grant support for multidisciplinary collaborations.
Experts from around Australia gave their opinions on these changes.
Professor Andrew Holmes is President of the Australian Academy of Science
“The changes will provide better opportunities for outstanding early- and mid-career researchers, and will address concerns about the potential for loss of creativity in research. Previously, funding applications for new ideas that pushed the boundaries may have had less prospect of success.
Of course adjustments will need to be made to the new system and we recognise some researchers will not be able to apply for the same number of grants as before.”
The new two-step review of applications will take pressure off both applicants and reviewers. Currently, applicants invest extraordinary amounts of time to apply for grants with a relatively low chance of success. Time spent on unsuccessful grant applications is better spent on doing valuable research. These reforms free up researchers to get on with solving health and medical research challenges.
I am encouraged that assessment of some grants under the new arrangements will be blinded to gender, age, career stage and institution.
Australia is a world-leader in many areas of health and medical research, from the Nobel-Prize winning discovery of the cause of gastric ulcers, to spray-on skin and the cervical cancer vaccine. The investment of taxpayers’ dollars in health and medical research by the NHMRC has had direct, beneficial outcomes for all Australians.
As the size and complexity of research required to improve health outcomes increases, these changes will go some way to ensuring that the funding structures in place to support our highly trained and specialised medical researchers are as robust as possible.”
Professor Adrian Barnett is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) & School of Public Health and Social Work at Queensland University of Technology
“Stronger restrictions on the number of grants per researcher is an interesting move. For obvious reasons, researchers with stellar track records get more funding, but I have seen situations where these stellar researchers have taken on too many grants and so the quality of their work goes down.
The planned restrictions may benefit our talented early career researchers who have more capacity to do the work and, in some cases, were the ones doing the work anyway behind the nominal stellar researcher.
However, an analysis of restricting grants to two per investigator at the US National Institutes of Health found that it would increase the grant success rate by just 2 per cent, so perhaps it won’t have much impact.
A key thing we have yet to see is the application forms.
The change has talked about ‘minimising the burden on researchers’ and hopefully that continues with short application forms that focus on the science.
Hopefully there’s also a plan to ditch the current application system (RGMS) for a system that’s easier to use and harnesses already existing data, saving researchers the need to waste time inputting their track records into fiddly forms.
We won’t really know how the changes work until the first round goes through. There’ll be furious activity behind the scenes now at every institution trying to work out what the changes mean and how best they can exploit them.”
Professor Tony Cunningham AO is President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI)
“These changes will allow our brightest scientists to do what they do best and that’s medical research, instead of being overly burdened by preparing and submitting grant applications on a frequent basis, often taking them months to complete.
We welcome the NHMRC’s changes and look forward to seeing even better and more creative medical research underway in Australia thanks to increased flexibility in the grant program, allowing researchers more freedom to respond to new and evolving health challenges.
The new Ideas Grants are a really terrific development. Applications will primarily be judged on the quality of the research proposal alone, rather than the past track-record of the researcher. This will level the playing field and allow the next generation of great minds to compete better with senior researchers for research funding.
The changes will also provide improved career certainty for many researchers thanks to a lengthening in funding timelines, along with better support and job security for researchers at all career stages.”
Professor Nicholas Fisk is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of New South Wales
“Professor Kelso is to be congratulated on pulling a rabbit out of the hat. Although the pie has not grown, her re-slicing goes some way to reducing the challenge of researchers having a salary but no research funds, or research funds but no salary.
Through fewer bigger-picture proposals, researchers will not need to spend so many months each year chasing success rates of under 15 per cent. The considerable time currently spent on grant applications each year will be far better spent doing actual research.”
Professor John Mattick AO is Executive Director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research
“The restructure is most welcome, and Garvan applauds the leadership of the NHMRC in refocusing and simplifying the research-granting landscape.
It will provide a more stable platform to gifted investigators to pursue brave and expansive programs of work, reduce unproductive churning and pressure on an overburdened review system, and encourage innovation instead of conservatism.
My only concern is that the quantum size for the Investigator Grants may be set too low by international standards, in an effort to spread the funds further, but that remains to be seen.
In all, a terrific reform.”
Professor Shitij Kapur is Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne
“I am delighted with this announcement because, as Minister Hunt pointed out, we are at the threshold of nearly doubling medical research funding for Australia.
It is very important therefore that we deliver on the returns of this investment, but do it in a way that allows our scientific community to flourish.
The announcement by NHMRC today promises a simplification of the system so our researchers can focus on the health and wealth agenda, rather than filling out forms.
And they promise a distribution of resources in such a way that Early Career Researchers and Middle Career Researchers can get on the career ladder earlier. Both of these are greatly welcomed, particularly the latter, as it will enable us to better retain the talents of female researchers in the workforce.
However, experiences in other jurisdictions such as Canada and the UK tell us that, no matter how perfectly a system is designed, there will always need to be a few tweaks to make it work well.
As the nation’s leading research institution, the University of Melbourne looks forward to working with the NHMRC and Professor Kelso to achieve the intended outcomes of this announcement.