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Streamlining NHMRC Application and Assessment Processes

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is Australia’s leading government body for supporting health and medical research.  NHMRC is required under the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 to raise the standard of individual and public health throughout Australia and to foster health and medical research and training throughout Australia.

The NHMRC Strategic Plan 2013 – 2015 (Strategic Plan) describes the agency’s strategic objectives and outlines NHMRC’s five priority actions. In line with these actions, and through its support for research and researchers, NHMRC aims to:

  • Create new knowledge through support of discovery research including through Project and Program Grants.
  • Accelerate research translation by supporting translational schemes such as Development Grants and Centres for Research Excellence.
  • Build Australia’s future capability for research and translation by supporting cooperation and collaboration in the use of research infrastructure and by funding the best and brightest researchers through scholarships and fellowships.
  • Set high standards in ethics in research through our standard setting documents and guidelines so that research is conducted ethically and with integrity.
  • Work with partners to maximise the benefits to Australians’ health and prosperity, including through Partnerships for Better Health and international collaborations.

NHMRC’s strategy for health and medical research is to invest in the highest quality research, as determined through transparent, efficient and effective peer review, across the four pillars of health and medical research: biomedical, clinical, public health and health services research.

In NHMRC’s 2013-15 Strategic Plan, we committed to continuously improve peer review. During this triennium, NHMRC has introduced a number of improvements to our Project Grant application and assessment processes. We have:

  1. Simplified the Project Grants application form from 268 fields in 2013 to 143 fields in 2014 to reduce the burden on applicants.
  2. Instigated the earlier removal of the least competitive grants, and increased the proportion of these applications removed. This has reduced the workload of our grant review panels and provided earlier notification to applicants.
  3. Set five years as the “default” duration of Project Grants (although applicants can apply for a shorter duration, if fewer years are required or desired), resulting in 35% percent of grants awarded in 2014 being for four or five years, up from 14% of grants in 2013. 

NHMRC Research Committee

NHMRC Research Committee comprises 17 individuals (including the Chair) all of whom have demonstrated leadership and extensive experience in various fields of health and medical research. A member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee also sits on Research Committee - this is a requirement of the NHMRC Act.

The functions of Research Committee, as set out in Section 35(2) of the NHMRC Act, are:

  • to advise and make recommendations to the Council on the application and monitoring of the Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA); and
  • to monitor the use of assistance provided from Medical Research Endowment Account; and
  • to advise the Council on matters relating to medical research and public health research, including the quality and scope of such research in Australia; and
  • such other functions as the Minister from time to time determines in writing after consulting the CEO; and
  • any other functions conferred on the Committee by the NHMRC Act, the regulations or any other law.

Consistent with its statutory functions, during the 2012-2015 Triennium Research Committee has engaged in a broad discussion of the character and objectives of NHMRC funding schemes, including application and assessment processes. Updates on Research Committee’s activities are routinely communicated to the sector in Research Tracker and can be found on the NHMRC website under Update on Research Committee activities.

The following principles are used to guide Research Committee’s discussions:

Principles Underpinning Improvement

NHMRC’s vision is to fund the best health and medical research and researchers for the benefit of Australia and the world, by achieving the highest quality peer review and by ensuring that application and assessment processes are fair, transparent, efficient and effective.

Our approach to improvement in this area is to make targeted, strategic changes to NHMRC’s funding schemes and processes, based on the following principles and objectives, as articulated in our Strategic Plan and by our Research Committee:

  • Support quality: [Continue to] support the best health and medical research ideas, plans and researchers in any area relevant to health for the benefit of the Australian public on the basis of the quality of the idea and significance of the issue, or on the performance of the researcher(s).
  • Support development: Provide opportunity for new researchers and support the development of high-quality researchers in any area relevant to health.
  • Support diversity: Ensure that there are a range of different granting schemes to accommodate different disciplines – basic, clinical, public health, health services research – and the different research environments and employment bodies.
  • Consider impacts: Ensure that any changes are justified and mindful of potential impacts and unintended consequences [including ensuring that the benefits of change outweigh the risks].
  • Simplify processes: Simplify and improve the grant application and assessment process to reduce unnecessary burden on applicants and/or assessors and to ensure that assessment processes are high quality, transparent, effective and efficient.
  • Increase certainty: Allow researchers supported by NHMRC funding to undertake their research with greater certainty.
  • Address priorities: Create knowledge and accelerate translation in strategic priority areas to direct efforts towards Australia’s most pressing health issues.
  • Rationalise schemes: Rationalise NHMRC’s different funding schemes, while noting that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to research funding.

We acknowledge that there are tensions between some of these principles (e.g. balancing quality—including fairness and trust in our processes—with the need for greater efficiency and reduced administrative burden.)  For this reason, quality remains paramount and we will not sacrifice quality in the interests of convenience if it means that outcomes would be adversely impacted.


NHMRC has undertaken a number of consultative processes to inform streamlining and improvement of our application and assessment processes:

  1. Consultation on the Principles of Peer review
  2. Evolutions in Peer Review Symposium - 20-21 February 2013
  3. Roundtable on the “Early Triage” of NHMRC Grant Applications

Current Consultations

Public Consultation on Elements of the Project Grant Scheme

In November 2014 Research Committee has provided Council with advice on elements of the Project Grants scheme. The NHMRC CEO Professor Warwick Anderson AM has considered the advice provided by Research Committee and considered by NHMRC Council, and has commenced a public consultation on Elements of the Project Grant Scheme.

How to make a submission:

The closing date for submissions is 3PM on Tuesday 24 February 2015.

Please note that no significant changes to the Project Grants peer review process are planned for the 2015 Funding Round (for funding commencing in 2016).



Page last updated on 11 December 2014