Professionals Australia represents a range of science and research professionals in Australia’s private sector including many in the independent Medical Research Institute sector. We have a strong and active member and supporter base that provides a critical contribution to health and medical research from research, through to development, commercialisation and clinical delivery. Our members have a unique insight into how to maximise the nation’s science and research capability, and we were committed to the structural review being informed by their expertise and experience.
In late 2015, we undertook a survey of the MRI sector and released a report Best and Brightest: Advancing Medical Research which found that the sector is currently characterised by complexity in funding arrangements, ongoing uncertainty for the researchers who work in the sector and a range of threats to the sustainability of the workforce. Respondents reported that the key structural issue giving rise to the problems faced by the sector was the way funding was structured and they ranked funding as the area requiring the most urgent policy reform. You can read Professional Scientists Australia’s submission to the review here.
In our submission, we noted the need for a strategic, whole-of-system review of the NHMRC’s funding program and the need to address:
- success rates for grant applications falling to record lows;
- the high number of grant applications placing an unsustainable burden on applicants and peer reviewers;
- the fact that many researchers, especially those at early and mid-career stages, were becoming discouraged from pursuing their research careers;
- disincentives to exploring new and interdisciplinary areas of research; and
- the perception that the funding processes favoured older, more established male researchers over younger, often female, scientists.
We also highlighted the related workforce development issues that needed to be addressed including:
- precarious employment with almost 80 per cent of our survey respondents saying they had considered leaving the MRI sector due to a lack of job security;
- lack of gender equity with 77 per cent of our survey respondents saying that women were under-represented at the senior researcher level at their institute, and 76 per cent saying an emphasis on recent rather than whole-of-career publications acts as a barrier to advancement for female research scientists who take a career break for family responsibilities;
- the lack of career paths for researchers/scientists with 43 per cent of respondents saying they did not feel they had a long-term career path as a researcher in the MRI sector;
- low grant success rates with 95 per cent of respondents agreeing that a funding system that had a success rate of less than 20 per cent led to a significant proportion of the research workforce leaving their field;
- lack of strategic workforce/skills development with 71 per cent of respondents saying that the MRI sector would benefit from the improvement of the business and management capabilities of those promoted into management and leadership roles;
- lack of capacity-building for the future with 63 per cent of respondents saying that the MRI sector was becoming less attractive to career researchers; and
- a short-term focus that was seen as constraining risk-taking and innovation and creating a barrier to collaboration.
So what do the new grant program arrangements look like?
Health Minister Greg Hunt and NHMRC CEO Anne Kelso have announced changes to the system of allocating grants arising from its funding model review. The restructure will be implemented in 2018-19 with actual funding changes rolled out from 2020 (existing grants will be honored).
Minister Hunt said the broad intention of the changes was to simplify the grant application and review process and provide greater employment security for researchers through longer-term grants. Professor Kelso acknowledged that the changes needed to address the fact that a great deal of good research was not being funded, that excessive time was being spent on writing applications, that early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs) were considering leaving research because of lack of opportunities and that applications were becoming more risk averse with applicants less likely to consider changing fields.
The four new streams announced under the NHMRC’s new grant program include the following:
- Investigator Grants to provide fellowship and research support in one grant;
- Synergy Grants to provide $5 million per grant for multidisciplinary teams.
- Ideas Grants to support innovative projects for researchers at all career stages; and
- Strategic and Leveraging Grants to support research that addresses identified national needs.
The NHMRC’s restructured grant program can be summarised as follows:
|Grant type||Investigator Grants||Synergy Grants||Ideas Grants||Strategic and Leveraging Grants|
|Purpose||To support the research programs of outstanding investigators at all career stages||To support outstanding multidisciplinary teams of investigators to work together to answer major questions that cannot be answered by a single investigator.||To support focussed innovative research projects addressing a specific question||To support research that addresses identified national needs|
|Duration||5 years||5 years||Up to 5 years||Varies with scheme|
|Number of Chief Investigators||1||4-10||1-10||Dependent on individual scheme|
|Funding||Research support package (RSP) plus optional salary support||Grant of a set budget ($5 million)||Based on the requested budget for research support||Dependent on individual scheme|
|Maximum number of applications allowed per round||1||1||2||Not capped relative to Investigator, Synergy and Ideas Grants. Dependent on individual scheme.|
|Maximum number of each grant type that can be held||1||1||Up to 2b||Not capped relative to Investigator, Synergy and Ideas Grants. Dependent on individual scheme.|
|Indicative MREA allocation||About 40%||About 5%||About 25%||About 30%|
Benefits of the new model
The NHMRC says the benefits of the new grant program arrangements will include:
- greater innovation and creativity in research;
- opportunities for Australia’s best health and medical researchers at all career stages; and
- a reduced burden on researchers in preparing and reviewing grant applications allowing them to spend more time on research.
What changes have been implemented to enable the system to better support innovation, collaboration and greater equity, and address the serious workforce issues raised by scientists and researchers?
Precarious employment and a dysfunctional short-termism
The changes include a general shift to longer-term grants of up to 5 years. While many researchers suggested that a more fundamental change than a shift to five year grants was required to fix the way research was funded in Australia, the shift to longer-term grants must be a step in the right direction to reducing the uncertainty and precarious employment arrangements that mark many researchers’ working lives. Those who employ researchers now need to align their employment arrangements with the 5-year funding arrangements.
Opportunities for early and mid-career researchers
The NHMRC says “the number of researchers supported directly and indirectly through the restructured grant program will not significantly change” and that “the changes will not alter the amount of funding committed to the Medical Research Endowment Account”. With the NHMRC acknowledging that the changes are a redistribution of funds rather than additional funding for research opportunities for EMCRs, there’s an obvious concern that the redistribution will create winners and losers. There was, for example, a concern that longer-term grants may reduce the pool of available research funds for EMCRs however the new Ideas grants stream appears to target opportunities for them with “more emphasis on supporting research ideas that are innovative and creative” and a reduced emphasis on track record. The new model also explicitly targets support for EMCRs in the Investigator grants and Synergy Grants streams. So, the question becomes will the changes effectively address what were limited opportunities for EMCRs under the former arrangements, and will it have any unintended consequences creating disadvantage for others.
Under the new model, the peer review of Investigator Grants and Synergy Grants will focus primarily on track record relative to opportunity.
The question of how career disruption is accommodated and the assessment of track record ‘relative to opportunity’ is implemented are the key questions in looking at the new funding model. The NHMRC says it is “introducing policies to take career disruption and ‘relative to opportunity’ considerations into account during peer review” so this will be critical in ensuring the embedded biases and procedural barriers to funding for women researchers are addressed in the peer review process.
According to the NHMRC announcement, Investigator grants are intended to provide greater flexibility for part-time researchers or those affected by career disruption (e.g. people with child-caring responsibilities), as they have the option to receive a full research package with a part-time salary. Research support packages will be allocated based on peer review of track record relative to opportunity. According to the NHMRC, the full research support package will be available to a part-time researcher. The stated intention is “to enable … part-time researchers with child-caring responsibilities to fund their team to continue to undertake the research on a full-time basis.’
At an organisational level, the NHMRC has committed to continuing their support for diversity in the research workforce, including researchers of different genders, those who work full-time and part-time and those taking career breaks. Their support includes the following:
Leading by example:
- introducing gender equity policy requirements for all NHMRC Administering Institutions;
- drawing on expert advice through the NHMRC Women in Health Science Working Committee; and
- introducing the Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowship, awarded to outstanding women Research Fellows.
Challenging bias and ensuring fair and inclusive funding processes:
- engaging the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling to analyse NHMRC funding data to get a more sophisticated understanding of issues affecting women’s success rates;
- introducing policies to take career disruption and ‘relative to opportunity’ considerations into account during peer review;
- offering part-time opportunities across all NHMRC schemes;
- introducing operational improvements to support those with carer responsibilities e.g. not sending out emails with deadlines attached on Friday afternoons or after 2pm; and
- introducing videoconferencing to facilitate the participation of people with carer responsibilities on NHMRC peer review panels
Supporting change in Australia’s research community:
- supporting the Australian Academy of Science’s Athena SWAN pilot; and
- aligning NHMRC’s gender equity work with the Australian Research Council, the National Innovation and Science Agenda, including the Women in STEM Entrepreneurship project, and other government initiatives.
Time spent on applications and low grant success rates- caps on application numbers
The new caps are intended to reduce the time researchers spend on applications and to address low grant success rates. A maximum of two applications per round can be submitted by any individual across the Investigator, Synergy and Ideas Grant schemes. i.e. individuals may only apply for one Investigator Grant and/or one Synergy Grant and/or up to two Ideas Grants in a given application round.
A maximum of two grants can be held concurrently, by any individual, with the following exceptions and conditions: (1) individuals who hold two Ideas Grants can hold concurrently a Synergy Grant, (2) individuals who hold two Ideas Grants can apply for, and hold an Investigator Grant, but their RSP will be discounted until the Ideas Grant/s have ended and (3) individuals may apply for an Investigator Grant concurrently with an Ideas Grant, and if both applications are successful only the Investigator Grant will be awarded.
Encouraging a more innovative, less conservative approach to grant funding
The former grant model had been criticised for emphasising track record at the expense of innovation and significance thereby entrenching conservative approaches to the selection of successful grants. There was a perception that the assessment process under the former grant program favoured older, more established male researchers over younger, often female, scientists. Under the Ideas Grants, peer review applications will focus on science, innovation and significance as well as the feasibility of the proposal. Track record has become one of the factors in the consideration of feasibility.
Encouraging an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach
Under the new model, Synergy Grants are intended to support multidisciplinary teams of investigators to work together to answer major research questions. The Strategic and Leveraging Grant schemes will continue to emphasise international collaborative schemes. According to the NHMRC, “Investigator Grants will provide flexibility to collaborate widely, grants for Partnership Projects and Centres of Research Excellence will continue to support collaborative research and partnerships, and collaborative teams can be funded under the Ideas Grant scheme.”
Encouraging the effective commercialisation of research and translation of research into clinical outcomes
The NHMRC has stated that it “will continue to support partnerships with end-users, commercialisation, translation and implementation science”.
The NHMRC says research translation will be supported by the following:
- Investigator Grants will provide opportunities for translational researchers whose salary is from a non-NHMRC source (such as clinician researchers) to obtain a five-year research package.
- Synergy Grants will promote multidisciplinary research that may lead to translational outcomes
- Development Grants, Partnership Projects and Centres of Research Excellence will continue to have a focus on translation.
The Strategic and Leveraging Grants will continue to focus on research that responds to national priorities but will also include a new stream to fund clinical trials and large cohort studies to support the translation of research into clinical outcomes.
Information on timing of implementation of the changes is available here.
Professionals Australia welcomes the changes to the NHMRC grant program funding arrangements. The changes take steps to address precarious employment for researchers, opportunities for EMCRs via the new Ideas Grants stream and the short-termism which has been an obstacle to optimal long-term research planning and outcomes. We remain seriously concerned at how the ‘relative to opportunity’ assessment works in practice in the peer review process and calls on the NHMRC to undertake further policy work in this area as a matter of urgency to ensure that bias and embedded review practices that can disadvantage female researchers are addressed. We also are concerned to ensure that caps on the number of applications that can be made by researchers do not limit their opportunities. We also note that the NHMRC has remained silent on mechanisms to incentivise or encourage strategic workforce development in the health and medical research sector aimed at supporting greater commercialisation of research and more effective leadership of research laboratories. The onus will fall to employers to develop the leadership, management and entrepreneurship skills of their research staff.
 Clinical trials and large cohort studies will be funded through a dedicated new scheme in the Strategic and Leveraging Grants stream.