Consultation Information - Public consultation on elements of the Project Grants scheme

1. Purpose

This information is provided as background to NHMRC’s consultation on the following elements of the Project Grants scheme:

  1. The Not For Further Consideration (NFFC) and Applicant Response steps; and
  2. The duration of Project Grants funding.

The online survey is available at: Public consultation on elements of the Project Grants scheme

2. Background

NHMRC aims to fund the best health and medical research and researchers for the benefit of Australia and the world, using fair, transparent, efficient and effective peer review to identify high quality applications.

In the NHMRC Strategic Plan 2013-15 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 RGMS-based Project Grants application form.
  2. Removed the least competitive grants earlier, and increased the proportion of these applications removed. This has reduced the workload of our grant review panels and provided earlier notification to applicants.1
  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.

3. Our approach to improvement

NHMRC works to make targeted, strategic changes to our research funding processes, based on the objectives articulated in our Strategic Plan, the principles developed by our Research Committee2, and feedback received each year from GRP members, lay observers and independent GRP Chairs.

We are mindful that a balance needs to be struck between producing the highest quality outcome, ensuring fairness for all applicants and maintaining the trust of the community on the one hand, and the desirability for greater efficiency and reduced burden on the other.

4. Providing your views

We are interested in your views about the need for further changes to:

  1. The “Not For Further Consideration” (NFFC) and Applicant Response steps; and
  2. The duration of Project Grants funding.

Please complete the survey on our consultation website (see link above).

This Consultation Information provides important context for the survey questions. Additional background information on the NFFC process is available in Attachment 1.

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).

Submissions close at 3.00PM (AEDST) Friday 27 March 2015.

5. How will feedback be used?

Your responses to the survey will be included in a report to our Research Committee and Council. Where feedback is placed in the public domain we will do so in a manner that ensures the anonymity of individual respondents.

Professor Warwick Anderson AM

Chief Executive Officer

National Health and Medical Research Council

December 2014

6. Not For Further Consideration and Applicant Response

The Project Grants peer review process includes a Not For Further Consideration (NFFC) (or ‘triage’) process3 which allows Grant Review Panels (GRPs) to focus on the most competitive applications at their face-to-face meeting.

Changes in 2014

NHMRC made further changes to the NFFC process in 2014. We removed a greater proportion of applications through our NFFC process, aiming for 50% rather than the previous 33%.

The NFFC decisions were based on the scores of the Primary and Secondary Spokespersons (1SP and 2SP), as informed by two independent external assessments and the applicant’s response to the written comments of the 1SP and external assessors (rebuttal). Of the 3810 applications submitted in 2014, 1,589 (42%) were removed by the NFFC process, 2,221 (58%) remained to be reviewed by GRPs and of these 553 were funded (14.5% of all applications).

We informed applicants of their removal by the NFFC process earlier than previously, in order to allow them more time to improve subsequent applications and to maximise the time available to seek funding from other sources.

Implications flowing from the timing of the NFFC - for consultation

NHMRC’s intent with the current timing of the NFFC decision has been to achieve a balance between efficiency and fairness.

The current reality of low funded rates and increasing pressures on researchers’ time has now prompted a further review of the timing of NFFC.

In practice, an earlier NFFC step would involve removing at least the applicant response (rebuttal) step. A much earlier NFFC step would also involve removal of external assessments. This is summarised at Table 1.

Additional background information on the NFFC process is available in Attachment 1 (below).

Table 1. Outline of the implications of bringing forward the NFFC step in the current Project Grants assessment process.

Time from close of applications to advice regarding NFFC outcome^ No. of expert reviewers determining the NFFC outcome No. of External Assessors’ reviews informing the reviewers’ scores Total no. of written assessments that could be provided to the applicant Opportunity for applicants to respond (rebut) prior to NFFC?
≤ 1 month One (Assigners Academy member OR 1SP) None One No
1.5-2 months (6-8 weeks) Two (Assigners Academy members and/or SPs) None Two No
3-4 months Two (1SP and 2SP) Generally two (but at least one) Three (2SP scores only) No
5 months (i.e. as in 2014) Two (1SP and 2SP) Generally two (but at least one) Three (2SP scores only) Yes

^Estimated time only. The actual time between the application closing date and notification of NFFC outcomes would depend on the receipt of all required reviews.

7. Duration of Project Grants funding

The objective of the Project Grants scheme is to support the creation of new knowledge by funding the best investigator-initiated research projects in any area relevant to human health.

To further encourage applicants to apply for five years if needed and desired, NHMRC clarified in its 2014 Project Grants Funding Rules4 to make five years the default duration in the application form. Applicants remain able to apply for shorter durations of funding, should the research being proposed require fewer years to complete. Table 2 provides details of the duration of applications in recent years.

Some researchers have argued that all grants should be of five years duration. Other researchers have argued that it should be possible to obtain longer duration grants for such studies as larger clinical trials, epidemiological studies and cohort studies. These types of studies may require sizeable and complex recruitment strategies, (clinical trials, large epidemiological studies) or require longer duration for achieve the outcome (e.g. cohort studies). It is envisaged that—if supported— such longer studies would be subject to a mid-term review to ensure that recruitment and other goals were being met.

Table 2. Proportion of Project Grants awarded by duration of funding (2010-2014 application years)

Grant duration (years)


# grants / Proportion of all funded


# grants / Proportion of all funded


# grants / Proportion of all funded


# grants / Proportion of all funded


# grants / Proportion of all funded

1 3 / 0.4% 4 / 0.5% 2 / 0.3% 1 / 0.2% na / 0.0%
2 30 / 4.0% 34 / 4.4% 20 / 2.7% 21 / 3.3% 16 / 2.9%
3 657 / 86.7% 645 / 83.4% 631 / 85.6% 533 / 82.5% 345 / 62.4%
4 43 / 5.7% 53 / 6.9% 52 / 7.1% 64 / 9.9% 121 / 21.9%
5 25 / 3.3% 37 / 4.8% 32 / 4.3% 27 / 4.2% 71 / 12.8%
TOTAL 758 / 100.0% 773 / 100.0% 737 / 100.0% 646 / 100.0% 553 / 100.0%

Attachment 1: A summary of Not For Further Consideration

NHMRC’s current NFFC process is outlined below. For a complete overview of NHMRC’s Project Grants assessment process please refer to the 2014 Peer Review Guidelines on the NHMRC website under Apply for funding > Project Grants.

  • Spokespersons: Each application is allocated to the two most suitable, non-conflicted experts on a GRP to act as spokespersons. The Primary Spokesperson (1SP) scores the application against the assessment criteria and provides a written report, which is provided to applicants for response. The Secondary Spokesperson (2SP) scores the application against the criteria but does not complete a written report. NHMRC aims to assign each GRP member approximately eight applications each as 1SP and another eight applications as 2SP.
  • External assessments: NHMRC, via its Assigners Academy, seeks external assessments of Project Grant applications to provide GRPs with the appropriate expertise needed to cover all the research applications being reviewed each year. Two external assessors review each application against the scheme assessment criteria independently of all other reviewers. External assessors widen and deepen the expertise available for each review. This is particularly important given the increasing number of multidisciplinary applications and the multidisciplinary make-up of most GRPs. An expert may be asked to review up to six applications as an External Assessor (the average is 1.7 applications per external assessor). External assessors may have additional roles as a GRP member or be members of the Assigners Academy for other applications.
  • Applicant response: All applicants are provided with an opportunity to view and respond to assessor comments (i.e. the written comments of the 1SP and two external assessors).
  • NFFC: Decisions on which applications will proceed to the GRP, and which will not, are made after the spokespersons consider the external assessments and applicant response for each application. Spokespersons are asked to provide their final scores (changed or unchanged) on each application based on this additional information and these final scores are used to inform the NFFC process. The number of applications that were removed from the assessment process prior to GRP meetings was not the same for each Primary and Secondary Spokesperson.

1 In 2014, 1,489 (over 40%) of the least competitive applications were removed and the applicants notified early in August.

2 A full description of these principles is available on our website.

3 A summary is available at: The project grants not for further Consideration Process for 2014 and outcome data from 2011-2013 (PDF, 207KB)

4 NHMRC Project Grants funding rules are available on our website.

5 Note that NHMRC must commit to the full forward costs of the grant upon award of the grant. This means, in general terms, that additional funding is required for longer grants, so fewer can be awarded against a fixed NHMRC budget.

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