By Professor Brendan Crabb, Burnet Institute Director and CEO, President, Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes and,
Professor Doug Hilton, President-Elect, Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, Director, Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Head of the University of Melbourne Department of Medical Biology.
There’s a well-known saying that goes ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Well, the converse is equally true. And in the case of medical research, it’s about time we did something about it.
The ‘it’ we’re referring to is the nearly 4,000 applications that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHRMC) receives for what are predominantly three-year Project Grants; and the job insecurity and productivity losses it inflicts on researchers and, more importantly and ultimately, the reduced likelihood of breakthroughs for those in the community in desperate need of solutions.
The system is broken
Few people outside the research community realise that researchers spend around a quarter of their working lives justifying why their work should be funded. Imagine if, rather than being directly productive, every employee of every business spent nine hours of their working week justifying their job.
The economy would grind to a screeching halt; not to mention the stress and difficulties the lack of job security would bring to their families. The Prime Minister agrees there is an issue with our grants program.
The Coalition’s Policy for Protecting and Streamlining Health and Medical Research specifically targets the administrative burden of the grant system. In the Prime Minister’s recent Ministerial Statement on Deregulation (19 March), he asked, “Why should Australian medical researchers collectively put 500 years of work
[each year] into preparing grant applications – of which only 20 per cent succeed?”
Well, the short answer is, they shouldn’t. Think of the discoveries that could be made if these 500 years of work were actually put into medical research.
Let’s talk about five-year grants and reduced success rates
The NHMRC has made some inroads to reduce the administrative burden of applying for grants. This a step in the right direction, but a systemic change that would provide greater job security to researchers, reduce the frequency with which grant applications need to be made, and provide the time and flexibility to undertake longer-term or higher risk research, is a move from three-year to five-year grants.
There has been some negativity towards this suggestion, based on the assumption that it would reduce grant success rates. Yes, there would be fewer grants awarded each year—even for the same total number of active grants—because grants would expire over a five-year cycle instead of a three-year cycle.
The flip side of this is that researchers would need to apply less often for the same amount of annual funding. If we look at the bottom line shown by modelling published in the previous government’s Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research (the McKeon Review), five-year grants would result in the same number of researchers being supported at the same level of NHMRC funding.
Five-year grants would also mean that–for the same level of annual NHMRC expenditure–forward commitments would need to increase to account for the extra two years per grant. Any upper limits on NHMRC forward commitments could be circumvented by awarding three-year grants with an additional two years of funding upon completion of a relatively simple progress report, as is the case for other government grants, such as development aid contracts.
We also recognise that there is legitimate concern that while five-year grants will have wide applicability, they will not be appropriate in every instance. Some projects are short term. It is for the above reasons, that a blanket shift to five-year grants alone is not the right fix. A more comprehensive overhaul of the grant system is what’s required.
The right fix
What the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) proposes is a move from 4,000 individual Project Grants each year to much fewer, larger and
longer-term grants allowing teams of researchers in a lab to carry out a program of research. One way of achieving this would be for NHMRC Project Grants, Program Grants and Fellowships to be merged into a single scheme of five-year grants.
This could free up untold hours of researchers’ time currently spent on literally
thousands of individual Project Grant applications each year. At the same time, it would provide the flexibility to pursue different lines of investigation, while providing researchers the greater security offered by five years of funding.
It would also remove the problematic situation where a researcher is successful in obtaining a fellowship to fund their salary, but is not successful in obtaining grant funding to pay for the costs of their research, leaving them with a salary, but no funds to actually do any research.
Of course, any new system must support early- and mid-career researchers to become independent, and provide the flexibility to support those researchers with career breaks. But we’re sure many in the medical research community already have suggestions on how the system can be improved in this regard.
AAMRI’s proposal, for example, suggests separate tiers of the five-year program grant
scheme for different stages of a researcher’s career, and would provide incentives for collaborative research.
No one would condone a system where success rates plummet. Nor would anyone condone a system where short-term projects cannot be funded, or where job security for early- and mid-career researchers or those with career breaks is further jeopardised.
As researchers, we are used to applying our problem-solving skills to our research. We are confident and optimistic that together we can put some of those skills towards fixing the broken system that rules our working lives and impinges on our personal lives.
This article appeared in The Australian newspaper on 2 April 2014.