Professor Anne Kelso AO
Former CEO, National Health and Medical Research Council
( from April 2015 to July 2023)
25 June 2021

The 2020 NHMRC Research Excellence Awards and 2021 NHMRC Biennial Awards were announced on 16 June 2021. Below is an extract of CEO Professor Anne Kelso's opening remarks before announcing the awards.

We’re here to celebrate and congratulate the winners of NHMRC’s 2020 Research Excellence Awards and 2021 Biennial Awards.

Tonight, and over these two days for our Council meeting, we are also bringing together our Council in person for the first time since March 2020 – but also for the last time for the current Council before we start the new triennium on 1 July. 

This is an opportunity for me to thank them publicly for their incredible support and wise advice during an extraordinary three years that has spanned the introduction of NHMRC’s new grant program in late 2018 through to COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021.

As we look back on the first 18 months of the pandemic, there are many lessons for us at NHMRC and for the wider research sector.

We are fortunate to live in a country with an excellent health system and an outstanding health and medical research sector.

We are fortunate to live in a country that has drawn on its outstanding public health specialists, clinicians, researchers and other experts for advice – and heeded that advice.

While the pandemic has a long way to run and we still face many challenges, the health and economic benefits are obvious today and the wider community has had new insight into the contribution that our researchers make to national well-being.

At NHMRC we are very proud to be one of the cogs that keeps that impressive machine working.

There are also important lessons to learn about preparedness.

I think there are two sorts of preparedness for major challenges, like the one we are now living through. 

The first is what you do to prepare for predictable challenges.

Everyone working in infectious diseases, particularly in the influenza world I used to inhabit, knew and often said that infectious disease pandemics are inevitable – they just don’t run to a timetable. But when they hit, you’d better be ready.

NHMRC recognised this many years ago. Almost 10 years ago, long before Paul Kelly was Chief Medical Officer and I was CEO of NHMRC, Paul and I were part of a workshop hosted by NHMRC and the Gates Foundation on bird flu, called H5N1: are we prepared? Some experiments in the US and Europe had suggested that the H5N1 virus was only a few mutations away from being able to cause a devastating pandemic.

One of the outcomes was an NHMRC funding call to establish a Centre of Research Excellence in Infectious Disease Emergency Response Research.

The successful applicant team, led by Professor Sharon Lewin, established the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Disease Emergencies – APPRISE. 

APPRISE has played a crucial role in coordinating Australian research to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus operates and how we can combat COVID-19 disease.

The APPRISE investment was relatively small but it was catalytic, by drawing people together and doing the hard thinking and preparing in peacetime, so it was ready to roll when the pandemic hit.

We need to learn from this for other predictable challenges – such as the health impacts of climate change.

The other sort of preparedness is for the challenges you don’t know are coming.

To prepare for the truly unpredictable, you need capability – the breadth and depth of skills and expertise that can adapt to needs, whatever they are and whenever they arise.

NHMRC plays a critical role in this because we try to support a very broad research sector around the country – different skills; different approaches; different fields; individuals, teams and networks – bound by the common theme of excellence.

In COVID too, we have seen how many researchers we fund around the country have been able to redirect their energy, skills and resources to focus on this acute challenge.

In this way we can also see how effectively NHMRC and the MRFF can work as complementary funders, with NHMRC supporting that broad foundation of capability across our many national needs, helping to keep the machine running, and the MRFF funding in priority areas where Australia needs to fill a gap or boost activity.

The speed of progress during COVID seems remarkable – identifying the virus, developing diagnostics, understanding its spread, identifying best acute care and, of course, vaccine development.

But I think everyone here understands that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

That so-called “response” to the pandemic is built on decades of patient investment by government funders, philanthropists and industry, and the lifetimes of commitment of researchers themselves.

So, if we can say something positive about the pandemic despite its devastating and continuing impact, COVID-19 demonstrates the strength of Australia’s health and medical research sector.

It is therefore a particular pleasure, at this time, to celebrate and thank some of our leading researchers, both established and emerging, through the 2020 NHMRC Research Excellence and the 2021 Biennial Awards.

The Research Excellence Awards recognise the top-ranked applicants to each of NHMRC’s major funding schemes during the past year.

NHMRC grants are awarded following critical assessment by independent peer reviewers and all NHMRC’s grant schemes are highly competitive.

To be ranked first in this rigorous process indicates the exceptional quality of the research proposals presented by each of the individuals and team leaders celebrated here – whether in laboratory science, clinical medicine or research to improve community health or the health system.

This year we also present five Biennial Awards – the inaugural Research Quality Award, along with the Outstanding Contribution Award, the Ethics Award, the Consumer Engagement Award and the Science to Art Award.

Each of these awards recognises a group or an individual who has made a special contribution in an area of importance to NHMRC. We are delighted to add the new Research Quality Award.

I congratulate all recipients and thank you all for your outstanding contributions to Australian health and medical research.


Find out more about the 2020 NHMRC Research Excellence Awards recipients and 2021 Biennial Award recipients.