Healthy dollars

24 January 2017

Competitive business

The NHMRC's 2017 competitive grant application round has so far resulted in grants and fellowships totalling $841 million for health and medical research projects.

The committed funding is up 6.7% from the $788 million in the previous year's round. This was mostly on account of around $43 million spent on special initiatives targeting mental health (Dementia) and Obesity and Metabolic Diseases.

But there was little change across the agency's main competitive grant schemes.

The 2017 success rate of Project Grants, the NHMRC's largest grant scheme was 16.4%, a slight improvement to previous year's 15.2%, and a result of less applications submitted to the agency (down by 6%).

The number of projects funded remained largely the same (550 and 539, respectively).

For applicants to NHMRC Program Grants scheme 2017 was a tough year, though. The NHMRC received more applications than last year, but awarded fewer grant, with this year's success rate just 26%. This is a major drop from previous years, when success rates often exceeded 40%.

The stand-out program grant receiving over $24 million will be led by Professor Bruce Neal, who is deputy director at the George Institute for Global Health and professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales. The project will investigate the best strategies for the prevention and treatment of cardiometabolic conditions.

A new NHMRC initiative is to reduce the persistent gap between the funding rates of female and male lead investigators in Project Grants.

The NHMRC's chief executive officer Professor Anne Kelso said the initiative is a deliberate approach to keep more women in the health and medical research sector. In 2017, it will fund an additional 34 project grants with female lead investigators.

Gender inequality in awarded NHMRC funding remains a big issue, despite 34 additional grants awarded to female leading researchers to reduce the gap in the Project Grants scheme.

Females lead investigators still received only around $168 million, while male lead investigators were awarded $301 million. But this striking gap in funding was not the result of female lead investigators being less successful - their success rate was only slightly lower than that of their male counterparts (15.2% and 17.1%, respectively).

Instead, the NHMRC simply received far less applications from female lead investigators, around half that of males.

By contrast, with Early Career Fellowships female applicants outnumbered males. This crucial scheme is designed to set up young researchers for a research career, and to eventually become a project grant lead investigator.

But with this scheme female applicants were far less often successful, with 33.5% of male applicants but only 20.6% of female applicants awarded a fellowship.

MRFF delights

One of the successful LCTRC projects is the Bayesian Evidence-Adaptive Trial at the University of Western Australia. Funded with over $3.5 million the trial is a new approach to optimise the treatment of viral or bacterial infections in cystic fibrosis patients. It uses a web-based tool to gather information for modelling an optimised antibiotic treatment.

More information: www.telethonkids.org.au

In 2017, the Medical Research Future Fund has kicked in with targeted funding initiatives. They include the $5 million Lifting Clinical Trials and Registries Capacity (LCTRC) grants, which were announced in January.

Recognising the high quality applications and the clear medical need in the area of rare cancers and rare diseases, the MRFF has since expanded the grant round to $26.6 million under the now called Rare Cancers, Rare Diseases and Unmet Needs Clinical Trials Program.

The MRFF will also provide $78 million in grants for health and medical researchers to increase the scale of existing fellowship schemes offered by the NHMRC. The fellowships under the MRFF's Next Generation Clinical Researchers program aim to encourage researchers in the early to middle stages of their careers to remain in the competitive research arena.

In October last year, the Australian Government announced a new $100 million fund targeting Brain Cancer. The MRFF is contributing $50 million to the Australian Brain Cancer Mission, which will also be supported with $10 million from the Minderoo Foundation's Eliminate Cancer Initiative, and $20 million from the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.

The fund will invest in clinical trials, basic research, and provide fellowships for researchers.

Initial investments include the establishment of an Australian arm of the GBM AGILE, an international adaptive trial platform for adults with glioblastoma.

The MRFF will also support the commercialisation of biomedical and medical technology, providing $35 million over the next four years under a competitive grant program called BioMedTech Horizons.

(Information on other recently closed, and programs now open, can be found on the MRFF website).

More information: www.nhmrc.gov.au