The NHMRC is undertaking a major change to the way it is funding health and medical research, after a structural review found current arrangemements inflexible and overly burdensome.
The announced overhaul has been broadly welcomed by the sector, reflected in comments such as by Professor Shitij Kapur from the University of Melbourne:
"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 Professor Nicholas Fisk from the University of New South Wales said:
"[NHMRC CEO] Professor Kelso] is to be congratulated on pulling a rabbit out of the hat"
From late 2018 to early 2019, the new program will provide high-performing researchers at all stages of their career and across different individual schemes with up to five year research grants that include a consolidated salary and research support package.
According to the agency, this will encourage greater creativity and innovation in research, and minimise the burden on researchers of application and peer review.
The new program will deliver grants across four individual schemes replacing the current Fellowships, Program Grants and Project Grants:
While the selection of Investigator and Synergy grants will be based on peer review of track record relative to opportunity, the Ideas stream will focus on the science, innovation and significance of the proposed research. This could especially give early-career researchers a chance to get up with an idea, as also pointed out by Professor Tony Cunningham from the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.
"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"
A number of current funding schemes will remain such as postgraduate scholarships and the Equipment Grant scheme.
But the NHMRC does not expect that the number of researchers supported, either directly or indirectly, will change much with the new funding arrangement.
Essentially, the size of the pie the NHMRC has available through its Medical Research Endowment Account - more than $800 million each year - will not change much over the coming years, bar slight increases in line with indexation.
However, NHMRC funding is, of course, not the only funding available to the sector, with the Medical Research Fund having entered the stage. It is set to double the available money for health and medical research by 2020, with $1.4 billion allocated by 2020-21.
But as Dr Daniel Johnstone, the current president of the Australian Society for Medical Research, has recently pointed out, it "remains a bit of a mystery. Strategies and priorities were released late last year yet there is still no information on how funds will be allocated and whether this will be subject to a competitive application process with independent expert review."
Professor Jim McCluskey, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Melbourne:
"We will need to understand the detail of the new structure before we completely understand the implications. The changes should reduce the burden of peer review and potentially provide greater opportunity for early and mid-career researchers.
The capping of grant schemes will impact on large, very successful groups but the planned growth in MRFF allows new opportunities for these and other researchers."
Professor Shitij Kapur , dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne
"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."
Professor John Mattick, 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 Andrew Holmes, 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 relative low chance of success. I am encouraged that assessment of some grants under the new arrangements will be blinded to gender, age, career stage and institution."
Dr Brian Oliver, Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group, UTS and the Woolcock Institute
"On face value, the changes to the NHMRC grant system are going to benefit upcoming researchers, whilst simultaneously making it more difficult for the few superstars in Australia who hold four to six grants as Chief Investigator A [the researcher that has overall responsibility for the project].
"I would expect that the large universities have the most to lose with the new system. However, researchers are clever and within a few days will have worked out how to game the system to their advantage."
Professor Nicholas Fisk, deputy vice-chancellor (research), 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."
Professor Tony Cunningham president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
"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."
Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, senior research fellow School of Public Health and Social Work, 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."