Some thoughts on grants announcements

Congratulations to all those who were awarded grants or fellowships in recent NHMRC funding rounds. As every applicant knows, most NHMRC schemes are extremely competitive so winning a grant is a real achievement. For those who were unsuccessful, we hope that the feedback you have received from peer reviewers is helpful and that you have other support to continue your research. We are only too aware that NHMRC receives far more high quality applications than it can fund.

The weeks leading up to the release of grant results are incredibly tense for all those researchers whose careers and livelihoods depend on the outcome. I know how this feels from my own experience as an applicant and lab head but I expect it is even more difficult now when funding rates are so low.

Project Grants receive the most attention – not surprisingly given this is NHMRC’s largest scheme (50% of the Medical Research Endowment Account, more than $400 million per annum) and contributes to the salaries of about 5,000 researchers across the whole health and medical research sector. With funding rates down to 14% last year, most applicants will be disappointed.

The timing of the release of Project Grant results, usually in mid- to late October, also causes concern every year.

An on-line petition was circulated last week calling for the date of the release of NHMRC grant results to be announced in advance. I understand the appeal of this proposal, as it would reduce anxiety in the lead-up to the release of results and might allow institutions to adjust their internal deadlines for decisions on affected employment contracts.

There are some issues to consider if a date were to be fixed in advance for release of Project Grant results.

First is the deadline for submission of applications (16 March this year), as this determines how close the release of results comes to the end of the year. NHMRC has been strongly encouraged by the sector, through Research Committee and others, not to set this date earlier in the year because of its impact on the holiday period and family commitments, and overlap with other grant deadlines. This is a difficult balance.

Second is the time taken for peer review of applications. The current process for Project Grants takes 25 weeks and comprises: checks for conflict of interest then allocation of each application to an assigner; the search by assigners for two external assessors; completion of external assessments; review by primary and secondary spokespersons (SPs); return of assessor and SP reports to applicants for rebuttal; submission of rebuttals; rescoring by SPs; and, finally, review by Grant Review Panels (GRPs). This year there were 38 GRPs which met over a six-week period between 1 August and 9 September.

Only a small fraction of the time taken for this process is office management of applications; the rest is needed for the steps undertaken by assigners, assessors, applicants and GRPs, each of which puts pressure on the researchers involved. A significant reduction in the time taken for peer review could only be achieved by changing the process itself, for example, by eliminating external assessments and/or applicant rebuttals.

Third is the time between the last GRP meetings and the release of grant results. This stage always takes several weeks because of the critical work needed to: integrate scores from all GRPs to develop a ranked list of applications; determine the funding cut-off based on budgets allocated by GRPs and separate consideration of New Investigators; undertake rigorous quality assurance of all the data; prepare funding recommendations; hold a meeting of Research Committee to consider the recommendations; submit Research Committee’s recommendations to NHMRC Council for advice; on Council’s advice, submit the recommendations to the Minister for Health and Aged Care for approval. On receiving the Minister’s approval, final quality assurance is undertaken before pressing the button in RGMS to send emails to all applicants.

The time needed for each of these steps post-GRP meetings cannot be predicted with certainty as they can all be affected by issues outside the control of NHMRC and the Government. Given this, we are very grateful to Minister Ley for allowing the release of grant outcomes under embargo as soon as possible after she has approved them.

Considering all of these factors, it would be difficult to fix a date for release of grant outcomes without allowing time for unexpected delays. I expect the choice then is between fixing a date in mid- to late November and the current approach where we release results as early as possible.

The Project Grant application and review process is demanding for everyone involved – in part because of NHMRC’s reliance on expert review to identify the highest quality applications for funding but also because of the very large number of applications received. Those who have contributed to the public consultation for the Structural Review of NHMRC’s Grant Program this year will be aware that we are looking at how we can improve the design of our grant schemes to reduce these pressures. If that can be achieved, I believe we will then be able to introduce important changes to our peer review processes that will further reduce pressure on the research sector. I look forward to reporting recent progress on the Review shortly.

Professor Anne Kelso AO

Chief Executive Officer