Getting ready for the 2015 Project Grants funding round - applying for funding when success rates are low

It’s that time of the year. Christmas looms, university exam marking has been in full swing and many researchers are already thinking about their Project Grant applications for 2015. Funding rules for 2015 will be available shortly and RGMS itself will open for Project Grant  applications a little later than normal, once it has been thoroughly tested following its recent upgrade.

When funding rates are low and the competition for funding is so hot, many researchers will be wondering “whether it’s all worth it”.

Most researchers agree that the intellectual work in preparing a grant application has its own value. We ensure that we are on top of the published literature, think hard about the direction of our research, look into whether new methodology is now available, and talk with colleagues about our ideas and plans. This is the stuff of academia, world-wide.

On the other hand, when fewer than 15 applications in 100 are able to be funded, it’s important to guard against needless waste of time and effort.

The competition is tough. On NHMRC’s seven point scale (up to seven points each for Scientific Quality, Significance and/or Innovation, and Team Quality and Capability relevant to the application; each by secret ballot), fewer than 20% of Project Grants that scored 5/7 overall were able to be funded in 2014.

Of course, success rates have both a numerator and a denominator. The denominator, the number of applications, has risen inexorably since 2001 except for this year (2014). In 2000, NHMRC received 1834 applications; this had risen by almost 2000 by 2013 when we received 3821 applications.

Although the total funding for NHMRC rose significantly over this period (from $156M to $689M), the increasing size of grants has meant that the numbers awarded have not kept pace with the increased funding.  In 2001, the mean grant size was $325,372 and 386 grants were awarded. In 2014, the mean was $759,463 and 553 grants were awarded.

The increase in grant size is due both to an increase in the average annual grant budget and to the lengthening duration of grants.

The annual budgets per grant have been increasing partly due to increasing numbers of personnel support packages (PSPs) per grant, no doubt reflecting the increasingly complex nature of health and medical research.

The lengthening of grant duration also affects the number of grants awarded because NHMRC must commit to the cost of grants over the total duration. As more researchers avail themselves of five year grants as research questions become more and more complex, the mean grant size has increased. In 2013, 28 five year grants and 65 four year grants were awarded. In 2014, this had increased to 71 five grants and 121 four year grants.

The result of the increased size of grants is that the number awarded has fallen from 646 in 2013 to 553 in 2014, despite  similar total budget for Project Grants.

What to do then as researchers face ever increasing competition to get grants?

The options for NHMRC boil down to (i) restrict application numbers and/or (ii) cut budgets to make the money spread over more grants.

NHMRC will also keep working on streamlining the applications, with the general principle of collecting only that data that peer reviewers need or that we need to assign applications appropriately.

Let’s dismiss option (ii).  PSPs already do not cover the entire salary of researchers across the sector. Secondly, it makes little sense to decide that a project needs a certain amount of money to achieve the aims and then to cut this by some arbitrary amount. NHMRC’s current policy is not to cut the budgets recommended by the Grant Review Panels.

Could we restrict the number of applications a researcher can submit?

Currently, researchers may hold or be applying for up to six applications. In fact, few researchers hold more than two grants. In 2013, just 18% of grant holders held more than 2 grants and only 1% held 6 grants.

Applicant teams in 2014 averaged more than 3.6 Chief Investigators, up from 2.6 in 2001, reflecting the increasing multidisciplinary and collaborative nature of health and medical research. The increases in CI numbers has been especially strong in public health and health services researchers, with an average 5.5 and 6 CI applicants in 2014 respectively.  Where CIs submit more than one application it is usually with different team combinations that reflect the skills needed for each research project. Restricting the number of applications would work against collaboration as the number of projects each investigator can be involved with is limited. This would particularly impact on researchers with special skills such as bioinformaticians, statisticians, modellers, epidemiologists and clinical trial experts, who are often required as chief investigators on a number of grants because of their unique skills.

Furthermore, our modelling suggests that restrictions on applications are unlikely to have significant effects on the number of applications if multiple CI applicants used gamesmanship approaches to “share out” CI places.

It has been suggested too that the numbers of applications could be reduced if either a quota was imposed per institution or NHMRC charged institutions a fee per application. Neither seems wise or practical. The former would be nigh impossible for universities to impose on their staff and the latter would simply result in churn of public monies (and anyhow is not currently administratively allowable for NHMRC).

It is often suggested that an Expression of Interest (EoI) step would be useful given that success rates are low. This certainly needs to be considered, though it won’t necessarily reduce the total amount of work by the sector.  An EoI may require less time in preparing than a full application and thus save time for the unsuccessful applicants. However it increases the work for those that are successful because a new, full application has to be written. It also does not reduce the total work for peer reviewers, with now two documents to be reviewed. It might also increase the total number of applications, as NHMRC found in 2006 and as New Zealand experienced when it adopted an EoI process in 2010.

NHMRC has been considering whether applications can be culled even earlier. This year, the ‘Not For Further Consideration’ (NFFC) target was increased to 50% of all Project Grants applications before the Grant Review Panel meetings. Those unsuccessful applicants were notified in early August rather than late October.

The key issue – both for the NFFC process and for EoI’s – is who do you trust to make the call that your grant should be ‘culled’? With our current system, four other researchers have a say (spokespersons and two expert reviewers) and researchers then have a chance to respond to their views (natural justice).  We will shortly release a survey seeking the sector’s views on whether they would prefer to know even earlier and the implications for how this decision would be made.

NHMRC’s systems need to be both effective and efficient; able to readily identify the most valuable ideas to fund and to reduce as far as possible unnecessary work.  As ever, we appreciate your feedback and comments (ceo@nhmrc.gov.au). Watch Research Tracker for release of our survey shortly.

Professor Warwick Anderson AM
Chief Executive Officer, NHMRC