Professor Anne Kelso AO
CEO, National Health and Medical Research Council
15 December 2020

Key points

  • $260 million investment in 283 Ideas Grants was announced today.
  • $20 million of extra funding has been provided to assist the sector’s recovery from disruption of research by COVID-19.
  • Streamlined peer review enabled the Ideas Grants round to be completed despite COVID-19.
  • Outcomes were released before the end of the year thanks to exceptional support from peer reviewers across the sector.

2020 – a challenging year

2020 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for the health and medical research sector. Even in ordinary times, a research career demands deep commitment and resilience, as well as the support of peers, mentors, institutions and funders. But we know that many researchers are ending 2020 facing greater uncertainty than ever because of the impact of COVID-19.

This year, NHMRC has focused on delivering its major grant schemes to provide opportunity and continuity of research funding in 2021 and beyond. Our largest grant round, Investigator Grants, was essentially complete when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March. Since then, we have focused on completing the 2020 round of Ideas Grants, our second largest scheme, because of its importance for so many people across the health and medical research sector.

2020 Ideas Grants announced

Today the Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, has announced the award of 283 Ideas Grants with a total budget of almost $260 million.

These 283 projects will support thousands of researchers to pursue their goals over the next 3–5 years, undertaking research that will underpin future advances in health and well-being. We offer them our warmest congratulations.

We also recognise that the outcomes are deeply disappointing for the many researchers who applied but were not awarded a grant in this exceptionally competitive round.

Ideas Grants 2020 funding facts – budget and funded rates

The funded rate for 2020 Ideas Grants is 9.8%, lower than in the first round of this scheme in 2019 (see Factsheet). Funded rates reflect three factors:

  • application numbers (about 9% higher in 2020 than 2019)
  • average grant budget (about 12% higher in 2020 than 2019)
  • total budget available (about 7% higher in 2020 than 2019).

While application numbers per chief investigator are capped, total application numbers and grant budgets are not capped and are therefore determined by the research sector.

The average grant budget mainly reflects the individual grant budgets requested by applicants. Peer reviewers are asked to advise whether requested budgets are appropriate for the proposed research. If peer reviewers raise concerns about a budget request, a further review is undertaken by a panel of scientific staff at NHMRC and a decision is taken on whether the budget is reduced for that grant. There is no automatic or across-the-board reduction in grant budgets. 

As usual, the total budget for the scheme was set at the start of the year on the advice of NHMRC’s Research Committee and Council. At that stage, $240 million was allocated for the Ideas Grant scheme, representing about 26% of the total expected commitments from the Medical Research Endowment Account in 2020 (the same as in 2019).

In October/November 2020, Research Committee and Council agreed that an additional $20 million should be drawn forward to supplement the budget for 2020 Ideas Grants, specifically to assist recovery of the research sector following the extensive disruption of research programs and careers by COVID-19.  This means that the overall budget for Ideas Grants in 2020 is more than 28% of this year’s MREA allocation.

Of the new total budget of almost $260 million:

  • about $227 million was awarded to applications in rank order based only on peer review score
  • about $32.7 million was awarded in rank order to near-miss applications that met one or more of NHMRC’s current structural priorities, in the following order:
    • projects led by researchers of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent
    • projects led by female researchers
    • projects addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health issues
    • projects in the broad research area of Health Services Research.

Without structural priority funding, the funded rate for male Chief Investigators A (CIAs) would have been 2.35% higher than for female CIAs. With structural priority funding, the funded rates were essentially the same for male and female CIAs at 9.79% and 9.82%, respectively.

Ideas Grants 2020 peer review process

As I advised back in March (https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/news-centre/update-changes-nhmrc-2020-funding-schemes), the deadline for submission of Ideas Grant applications was delayed by 5 weeks to 10 June to reduce the acute pressure on applicants as COVID-19 case numbers rose rapidly. Like everyone else, we had no idea how the year would turn out.

In May (https://nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/news-centre/changes-peer-review-processes-ideas-grant-scheme-2020), we announced that the peer review process for Ideas Grants would be streamlined to reduce peer reviewer burden and to increase the chances of having outcomes before the end of the year. 

The critical steps in the streamlined process were:

  • seek four independent reviews (scores against the published criteria, no written comments)
  • do not hold Grant Review Panels (GRPs)
  • review budgets flagged by assessors
  • develop ranked list of applications based on overall peer reviewer scores.

We are aware that the removal of GRPs and the absence of written comments were issues of concern to the sector. Some background to the GRP decision was provided in my communique on 4 May 2020 and further information about this will be provided soon. Both decisions were taken to reduce pressure on peer reviewers this year, given the great uncertainty about the pandemic’s effect on the availability of reviewers for this large scheme.

The significant advantage of removing GRPs this year is that we were able to use “application-centric” peer review, in which peer reviewers are matched (maximising suitability and minimising conflicts of interest) to each application. The traditional approach of “panel-centric” peer review requires matching sets of peer reviewers to large sets of applications to form GRPs, which imposes many more constraints on the matching of suitable peer reviewers to each application. 

NHMRC data and survey feedback from peer reviewers confirmed that the suitability of peer reviewers for each applications was greatly improved using application-centric peer review in 2020 compared with panel-centric peer review in 2019.

In early June, we extended the submission deadline for a further week to 17 June due to the impact of the second wave of COVID-19 infections in Victoria. As we said at the time, we were worried that any longer delay would prevent us releasing outcomes before the end of the year.

We were tremendously relieved to be able to release outcomes under embargo on 30 November, several weeks earlier than anticipated. This was possible thanks to the exceptional support of the 585 peer reviewers who completed 11,954 reviews for the scheme in 2020, the great majority of whom met our deadline of 11 October.

Almost every peer reviewer was able to return reviews for all of their allocated applications. As a result, 99.4% of applications received the target of four reviews. All of the remainder received three reviews. This is an outstanding result and we are very grateful for the sector’s support – THANK YOU!

The value of embargoed and public grant announcements

We are grateful to the Minister for approving the release of Ideas Grant outcomes under embargo and for today’s public announcement of outcomes.

NHMRC is aware how much researchers and institutions appreciate the release of outcomes as soon as possible after their approval by the Minister, to enable staff to be appointed and research to commence. The release of outcomes ends many months of waiting for news that can have a major impact on people’s research and career plans. For these reasons, NHMRC routinely seeks the Minister’s approval to release individual grant outcomes to applicants and their institutions under embargo.

The public announcement serves a different purpose and one that we also value highly. 

It is an opportunity for the Minister to draw community and media attention to the outstanding health and medical research being undertaken around the country in our universities, medical research institutes and hospitals. It promotes the value of public investment in research for the improvement of human health and, in so doing, helps to sustain public support for the use of taxpayers’ funds for research.

By embargoing any public release of information about the outcomes of the grant round before the Minister’s announcement, NHMRC wants to ensure that the public announcement has the greatest possible impact. 

Ideas Grants 2021 peer review process

2020 was a very unusual year when we needed re-think delivery of NHMRC’s grant program midstream after several major schemes had already opened. For Ideas Grants, having extended the submission deadline and with great uncertainty about how the pandemic would progress, the only way we could deliver outcomes before the end of the year was to streamline peer review by cancelling the GRP step.

We now have a small window in which to design the peer review process for Ideas Grants in 2021. In doing so, we are drawing on this year’s experience, together with data from other schemes, feedback from peer reviewers and the wider sector, and international studies of peer review. We are also considering the need for flexibility given continuing uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic and how it will affect research in Australia and internationally.

More information will be provided soon. 

In the meantime, all of us at NHMRC appreciate the support and feedback we have received from researchers and institutions throughout 2020 and we wish everyone well for 2021.


Professor Anne Kelso AO
CEO

Share