In January 2016, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) CEO Professor Anne Kelso announced a review of the structure of NHMRC’s grant program. The review aimed to determine if restructuring existing programs could optimise the significant public investment (approx. $800 million per annum) disbursed through NHMRC grant programs. Government funding for NHMRC programs quadrupled between 2000-1 ($185 million) and 2010–11 ($750 million). This increased investment produced major benefits to the health and medical research (HMR) sector in terms of size and productivity. However, the corresponding increase in volume of grant applications presented an ‘unsustainable burden’ for reviewers and researchers with overall success rates reaching historic lows. Further rationale for the review came from the HMR community’s concerns about the amount of time spent by researchers on (often unsuccessful but high quality) grant applications, conservative approaches impacting innovation, and potential limitations on career prospects particularly for early and mid-career researchers.
After a period of investigation, as well as public and targeted consultation by an Expert Advisory Group, the NHMRC CEO and Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the restructured NHMRC grant program on 25 May 2017. The revised program will be implemented throughout 2018-19 with disbursements commencing in 2020. Some transitional arrangements will take effect and all existing grants will be honoured.
Timing and next steps
According to the NHMRC, the reformed program was designed in accordance with the following principles:
- Fund across the spectrum of health and medical research
- Invest in people with outstanding research achievement and promise
- Support the most innovative research to solve complex problems
- Meet specific strategic objectives.
The aims and expected benefits of these improvements are to:
- Encourage greater creativity and innovation in research
- Provide opportunities for talented researchers at all career stages to contribute to the improvement of human health, and
- Minimise the burden on researchers of application and peer review so that researchers can spend more time producing high quality research.
There are four grant programs in the revised structure. The NHMRC overview is as follows:
Investigator Grants will consolidate separate fellowship and research support into one grant scheme that will provide the highest-performing researchers at all career stages with funding for their salary (if required) and a significant research support package.
Synergy Grants will provide $5 million per grant for outstanding multi-disciplinary research teams to work together to answer complex questions.
Ideas Grants will support innovative and creative research projects, and be available to researchers with bright ideas at all career stages, including early and mid-career researchers.
Strategic and Leveraging Grants
Strategic and Leveraging Grants will support research that addresses identified national needs. This will include an enhanced Targeted Calls for Research scheme and a dedicated funding stream for Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies. It also includes existing schemes such as Centres of Research Excellence, Development Grants, international collaborative schemes, and Partnerships for Better Health (Partnership Centres and Partnership Projects).
Other changes to the NHMRC grant program include a shift towards longer funding periods, caps on the number of grants that can concurrently be applied for or held, as well as review provisions that highlight track record relative to experience and provide more part-time options to benefit those with career disruptions and/or care-giving responsibilities.
As the main funding mechanism for HMR, these structural reforms to NHMRC programs represent an important step in ensuring ongoing research excellence. However, the NHMRC review is just one of many major reviews relevant to Australia’s world-class HMR sector. Changes precipitated by the outcomes and recommendations of these reviews as well as shifting social and economic conditions can present challenges to the HMR sector. It’s important that the structural factors such as funding and governance support rather than hinder research. This requires ongoing and intentional engagement and effort across diverse stakeholders in the HMR community. Now complete, this review should bring greater certainty and renewed focus to this particular aspect of the HMR sector. However, the question for the future is how the whole sector will continue to adapt to ongoing requirements and on what timeframe. For example, a review such as this one into streamlining grant funding mechanisms was actually recommended by the McKeon Review back in 2013. This was just one of many recommendations outlined as part of its 10-year vision for Australian HMR. Four years later, there is value in revisiting the McKeon Review and its recommendations. Despite never receiving a comprehensive, formal response from government it provides a useful scaffold for examining different aspects of Australia’s HMR sector. As a cornerstone of our country’s health and economic prosperity for many years, the HMR sector deserves the right oversight and leadership to continue to deliver on its promise. Steps such as this reform of the funding landscape are important parts of this process.