CEO Diary – some thoughts on my last day at the desk

As I pack up my desk on my last day as NHMRC’s Chief Executive Officer, I am flooded by thoughts about the last nine years, as well as the future ahead.

My first thought is of thanks - thanks to the thousands and thousands of peer reviewers who serve on GRPs and write reviews each year. Without you, NHMRC can’t do its job. It’s mostly thankless work, but a type of mutual obligation (and check out our thanks to all peer reviewers on our website including some special stars).

Thanks to four governments that have increased funding during my time as CEO from $437 million in 2006 to $859 million today.  Supported by five ministers, this is one of the CEO’s main tasks each year.  Thanks too to the Secretary and staff of the Department of Health especially during the six months each year as the Federal Budget is developed.

Thanks to the thousands of health and medical researchers who push back the frontiers of knowledge to improve health each day with NHMRC support.  Around 10,000 researchers are currently supported by NHMRC and I am astounded when I read of the achievements; from insights into the most fundamental aspects of life though to research that leads to improved services and treatments and new commercial products, and to partnerships with researchers in countries far and wide. 

Thanks also to the hundreds of experts who contribute to NHMRC guidelines and statements. Many of these are in controversial areas (I’m thinking recent examples such as homeopathy, lead, wind farms and animal ethics to name a few). The depth of knowledge that our committee members bring to these subjects ensures NHMRC’s public health advice and ethical guidelines are some of the best in the world.

Thinking about the future - science and research always face challenges. Here are some on my mind today.

Continual improvement in peer review. NHMRC’s processes are much more transparent now than ever before and the Declarations of Research Assessment, so widely supported by the research community, points the way ahead. NHMRC funding decisions are entirely made on the basis of peer review; hence the need for continual improvement.

Improving responsible conduct in research. The NHMRC/ARC/Universities Australia Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, a unique document worldwide, will undergo updating during this year. All in research have a responsibility to promote the highest standards in our work and the work of others. Research misconduct will never be completely eliminated (scientists are human!) but it’s in everyone’s interest to be as vigilant as possible against misconduct. It’s also in everyone’s interest to ensure that the best scientific methodology is rigorously applied, to reduce the concerning reports of lack of reproducibility in some medical research. At my urging, heads of medical research funding bodies around the world are reviewing polices (see our letter in Nature earlier this month).

Institutions taking more responsibility for early career researchers.  It is heart breaking to me to see postdocs made entirely dependent on gaining NHMRC funding for their ongoing employment at some of our research institutions. Come on, this is not responsible behaviour, leaders!  Recruiting staff without any assurance of ongoing support is in my mind indefensible, as is inadequate support for women having children (hence NHMRC’s new policy).

So, postdocs, my suggestion is to ask for a contract that provides you with some guarantee of support beyond a competitive fellowship, say for 2-3 years at least. If your institution doesn’t come up with the goods, shop around; there is a market for good postdocs. You might also ask what opportunities your institution could give you to learn other skills that might help prepare you for other careers in science such as in biotech, education and teaching, pharma, policy and government, the NGO sector, the media and more. Even if you have a long career in full time research, extra skills and opportunities make life more interesting!

Institutional Business plans. I have an ongoing concern that some small institutions, highly geared on NHMRC competitive funding, are not well placed to deal with the flat Forward Estimates for NHMRC funding. Research institutes in the USA have folded in the face of flat NIH funding; it would be serious if the same happened here.

And of course my thoughts turn to leaving Canberra (a great place to live by the way), making Melbourne my home base again in Australia, and welcoming as many Australian researchers as possible in Strasbourg over the next three years.

I will elaborate on many of these thoughts in my address to the National Press Club on April 15.

When I leave today, it will be with some sadness but also with the certain knowledge that with Anne Kelso, NHMRC will be in great hands.

Warwick Anderson AM
31st March 2015