Medical research in Australia is facing some unprecedented challenges. Investment in the National and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has been flat for years and since 2011, the number of funded research projects has dramatically decreased. Only 15% of projects are funded, despite many more ranking as highly suitable for funding.
Australian medical researchers are under intense pressure to find research funds for salary support and to continue their research. This has a significant impact on the quality of the research performed in Australia. Many medical researchers spend several months a year writing unsuccessful grant proposals because of the highly competitive funding environment.
Researchers should be conducting life-saving research. The uncertainty of funding has a serious negative impact on the most vulnerable in the sector including early- and mid-career researchers, women, and those facing career interruptions due to maternity leave or disabilities.
The NHMRC initiated a review to reduce the drop-out rate of researchers, improve the system of grant review, and encourage innovation and creativity across the sector. Experts proposed three funding models after extensive review and changes were announced yesterday.
What the NHMRC has changed
Australian researchers spend months writing and reviewing research proposals. To put researchers back in the laboratory, the NHMRC will cap at two the total number of grants that can be submitted or held.
Project funding will be increased to five years from the current average of three to four. Researchers will be more able to concentrate their time and effort on conducting research and sharing their discoveries.
The NHMRC created an investigator scheme, combining salary for the investigator and significant research expenses for five years.
To enable innovative and risky research into medical problems, a scheme dedicated to funding research based solely on novel and innovative ideas has been established. Previously, the investigator’s CV was critical for assessment of the idea. This meant established, older researchers were far more successful than younger researchers, even if both had put forward the same proposal. The review process will now be based on the project’s scientific merit, not the reputation of the researcher.
For large collaborative projects across multiple institutions in Australia to address complex medical themes, investigators will apply for a specific grant scheme enabling large and ambitious programs over five years.
Finally, strategic grants to address national needs will continue. For example, support for research into areas such dementia will be maintained and a specific funding scheme will be dedicated to clinical trials or commercialisation of medical devices or therapies in Australia.
Will these changes make a difference?
The restructured grant program will hopefully enable Australia to avoid further drop-out of early- and mid-career researchers. This is essential to keep the diversity of research programs in Australia. By capping the number of grants per researcher, and promoting new ideas without scrutinising the CV of the investigators, women and early career researchers will be better placed to compete fairly with well-established researchers.
This means the best and most innovative ideas that have the greatest potential for breakthrough in medical research will win. Hopefully these new grant programs will also significantly reduce gender bias in academia and enable talented women researchers to shine.
In 2016 female researchers had a 12% success rate compared to 16% for men. Early career researchers only made up 26% of funded project grants.
There are downsides to these changes though.
The new grant structure will have a negative effect on collaboration between researchers due to the cap on the number of grants held. This could also lead to perverse effects. For example, instead of a laboratory head sending in one grant application, they may encourage all of the academics in the lab to apply to be more competitive. This could mean far more applications each year, the exact opposite of what we would hope.
With good intentions, similar changes occurred in the Canadian grant system program in 2013. The changes led to hasty implementation, unpredictability of the grant review process and had a disastrous effect on medical research in Canada. Close monitoring and review of the changes will be crucial to avoid reproducing the Canadian situation.
Finally, the lack of further investment into the NHMRC favours mid to short-term strategies of commercialisation and translational medicine over basic science projects with long-term goals.
Overall, the announcement of a much needed overhaul of the NHMRC grant system was welcomed by the sector and Australian medical researchers. While important and more details remain to be seen, there is, for now, optimism in the sector that the new grant system will nurture talented researchers to find new treatments and improvements in health.
Authors: Gaetan Burgio, Geneticist and Group Leader, The John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University