This is an uncertain time and we know many researchers are worried about the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on their research, grant applications and other professional activities over the coming months – on top of the concern we all share for family, friends and the wider community.
NHMRC is considering how to address these issues from its side, at the same time as preparing for the impact of an Australian epidemic on the office’s ability to deliver NHMRC and MRFF grant schemes and other core responsibilities throughout 2020. I have outlined some of our thoughts below.
Like many other organisations, NHMRC has already moved to holding all committee meetings by video or teleconference, at least until the end of May. NHMRC has been using Zoom for many meetings over the last 3 years. This has been favourably received and many of us have become quite used to it. We are getting in touch to discuss arrangements with all committee and grant review panel members who were expecting to come to Canberra in the next few weeks.
Effects on particular groups
We are aware of concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on a number of groups of people within the health and medical research sector:
• researchers involved in the clinical and public health response to COVID-19 who are therefore unable to proceed with their usual research activities and/or work on grant applications or assist with peer review
• people with caring responsibilities (often women) whose work will be affected by school closures and illness in vulnerable family members
• researchers whose current research has been or will be disrupted by the outbreak, for example because of interruptions to clinical trials or public health interventions, travel bans, lack of access to facilities and laboratories, reduced availability of staff members and collaborators, and interruption to supply chains
• teaching and research academics who are now needing to undertake extra work to transform their teaching activities into on-line formats.
We can imagine that, if the outbreak continues for an extended period, just about everyone’s research will be affected to some degree.
Grant submission deadlines
Many individuals and institutions are asking NHMRC to extend grant submission deadlines for the reasons outlined above. This possibility is under serious consideration, most urgently for those schemes that are currently open for applications (such as Synergy, Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies, and Ideas Grants).
There are several factors affecting this decision:
• Extending deadlines for more than a few days will affect the timing of funding announcements. If the extension for major schemes is significant, grants might not be announced until after 1 January 2021. We are well aware of the impact of late announcements on researchers employed on current grants ending 31 December. We are also aware that many institutions may lack the cash reserves to provide bridging support for these staff members.
• Extending deadlines will affect the timing of peer review, which may in turn affect the availability of peer reviewers.
Peer review processes
Timelines between application deadlines and grant announcements are very tight for all major schemes. If we extend deadlines and want to reduce the risk of announcements being delayed until next year, we would need to reduce the time taken for peer review.
Broadly, there are two ways to reduce the time taken for peer review: reduce the time allowed for peer reviewers to complete each step in the peer review process, or reduce the number of steps.
For example, in the Ideas Grant and Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Grant schemes, peer reviewers undertake independent assessments of a number of grants and submit their scores. These scores are used to generate an initial ranked list, the top band of which forms the shortlist taken forward to discussion at a Grant Review Panel (GRP) meeting. For these schemes, the main options to reduce the time taken for peer review are:
• Reduce the time available for the initial independent assessments
• Reduce the time available for peer reviewers to prepare for GRP meetings
• Remove the GRP assessment stage altogether and award grants based on the initial ranked list.
We understand there are strong views across the sector about the demands of peer review, the design of peer review processes and the value of GRPs. We are also aware that the COVID-19 outbreak may affect the availability and flexibility of some peer reviewers for a range of reasons.
We will do our best to take these considerations into account in deciding whether and, if so, how to reduce the time taken for peer review under the special circumstances we face this year.
Extension of existing grants
NHMRC is also being asked to consider extending current grants and providing extra funding to cover the extension. Again, there are several factors to be considered in making a decision:
• Grant extensions in some schemes (Fellowships, Project Grants, Program Grants) into 2021 would affect Chief Investigators’ eligibility to apply for some schemes in this year’s round (Investigator, Ideas and Synergy Grants, noting that the Investigator Grants 2020 round is well advanced).
• Waiving eligibility limits and/or making bespoke arrangements for thousands of applications may require manual handling outside Sapphire/RGMS on a scale that would be beyond NHMRC’s capacity.
• Extending grants with extra funding would affect the availability of research funds for future funding rounds. The cost would depend both on the duration of extensions and on the number of schemes for which they are offered.
All options are under consideration. In making these complex decisions, we will try to abide by the principles of:
• Fairness: that support for one group or scheme is not provided at the expense of another
• Simplicity: that the arrangements are easy for everyone involved to understand and implement
• Timeliness: you need to know soon.
We ask for your patience for a little longer while we work through the issues and seek advice.
We will update you as soon as decisions are made.
We wish everyone well.
Professor Anne Kelso AO
Chief Executive Officer
19 March 2020