The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is the Australian Government’s primary health and medical research funding agency. With NHMRC support, Australia undertakes outstanding health and medical research which has contributed to significant improvements in individual and population health.
Government appropriations to the NHMRC's Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) quadrupled between 2000–01 ($185 million) and 2010–11 ($750 million). Since then, the Government has maintained the funding at about $800 million per annum. The increased investment in medical research and researchers enabled through the quadrupling of the MREA has significantly boosted the size and productivity of Australia's health and medical research sector. However, rapid growth in grant application numbers and rising costs of research have led to funding rates for NHMRC's major grant schemes falling to historical lows.
There is now widespread concern that the high volume of applications for NHMRC funding is having a range of negative effects on Australian health and medical research. For example:
- Researchers are spending a substantial period each year preparing or reviewing grant applications that will not be funded, despite many being of high quality
- Early and mid-career researchers are being discouraged from pursuing a research career
- Applicants may be more likely to propose, and peer reviewers more likely to favour “safe” research to the detriment of innovation.
In response to these issues, NHMRC reviewed the structure of its research funding and has reformed its grant program.
The changes aim to:
- encourage greater creativity and innovation in research
- provide opportunities for talented researchers at all career stages to contribute to the improvement of human health, and
- minimise the burden on researchers of application and peer review so that researchers can spend more time producing high quality research
The new grant program reflects the philosophy that health and medical research is best supported by a diverse portfolio of schemes that:
- Fund across the spectrum of health and medical research
- Invest in people with outstanding research achievement and promise
- Support the most innovative research to solve complex problems
- Meet specific strategic objectives.
The new program will comprise four funding streams:
- Investigator Grants, will consolidate separate fellowship and research support into one grant scheme that will provide the highest-performing researchers at all career stages with funding for their salary (if required) and a significant research support package.
- Synergy Grants, will provide $5 million per grant for outstanding multi disciplinary research teams to work together to answer complex questions.
- Ideas Grants, will support innovative and creative research projects, and be available to researchers with bright ideas at all career stages, including early and mid-career researchers.
- Strategic and Leveraging Grants, will support research that addresses identified national needs. This will include an enhanced Targeted Calls for Research scheme and a dedicated funding stream for Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies. It also includes existing schemes such as Centres of Research Excellence, Development Grants, international collaborative schemes, and Partnerships for Better Health (Partnership Centres and Partnership Projects).
Applications for funding under NHMRC’s new grant program will open in late 2018-early 2019 for peer review in 2019, and funding commencing in 2020.
Funding will continue to be provided based on rigorous peer review of applications to ensure transparency, probity and fairness. Assessment of Investigator Grants and Synergy Grants will primarily focus on track record (relative to opportunity and peer group), and assessment of Ideas Grants will primarily focus on the science, innovation and significance of the proposed research.
In implementing the new grant program, NHMRC is guided by a number of principles:
- Excellence: support excellence across the health and medical research spectrum
- provide opportunities across all four broad research areas
- provide opportunities for talented researchers at all career stages, with different career trajectories and in different research settings
- seek to minimise both disadvantage and selective advantage
- avoid tailoring policies to exceptions
- Transparency: consult and communicate with the research sector
- ensure policies and processes are simple to understand and implement
- retain existing policies unless there is a strong case for change
- Protect NHMRC’s current investment by honouring existing grants
- Support the seven key principles of the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines1.
The overall changes are summarised in the table below:
|Overview of NHMRC’s restructured grant program|
|Grant type||Ideas Grants||Strategic and Leveraging Grants|
|Purpose||To support the research programs of outstanding investigators at all career stages||To support outstanding multidisciplinary teams of investigators to work together to answer major questions that cannot be answered by a single investigator.||
To support focussed innovative research projects addressing a specific question
|To support research that addresses identified national needs|
|Duration||5 years||5 years||Up to 5 years||Varies with scheme|
|Number of Chief Investigators||1||4-10||1-10||Dependent on individual scheme|
|Funding||Research support package (RSP) plus optional salary support||Grant of a set budget ($5 million)||Based on the requested budget for research support||Dependent on individual scheme|
|Maximum number of applications allowed per rounda||1||1||2||Not capped relative to Investigator, Synergy and Ideas Grants. Dependent on individual scheme.|
|Maximum number of each grant type that can be heldb||1||1||Up to 2b||Not capped relative to Investigator, Synergy and Ideas Grants. Dependent on individual scheme.|
|Indicative MREA allocation||About 40%||About 5%||About 25%||About 30%|
a A maximum of two applications per round can be submitted by any individual across the Investigator, Synergy and Ideas Grant schemes. I.e. individuals may only apply for one Investigator Grant and/or one Synergy Grant and/or up to two Ideas Grants in a given application round.
b A maximum of two grants can be held concurrently, by any individual, with the following exceptions and conditions: (1) individuals who hold two Ideas Grants can hold concurrently a Synergy Grant, (2) individuals who hold up to two Ideas Grants can apply for, and hold an Investigator Grant, but their RSP will be discounted until the Ideas Grant/s have ended and (3) individuals may apply for an Investigator Grant concurrently with an Ideas Grant, and if both applications are successful only the Investigator Grant will be awarded.
To allow the consolidation of salary and research support to individual researchers, the approximate Medical Research Endowment Account allocation to individual researchers will increase from about 16% (salary only) to about 40% (salary and research support package). Percentage values in the above pie charts are indicative and subject to change. The Equipment Grants scheme and the Independent Research Institute Infrastructure Support Scheme (IRIISS) funding have been included under Strategic and Leveraging Grants.
Funding will continue to be provided based on rigorous expert (peer) review of applications to ensure transparency, probity and fairness. The peer review of Investigator Grants and Synergy Grants will focus primarily on track record, relative to opportunity. The peer review of Ideas Grants will focus primarily on the science, innovation and significance of the proposed research.
What will not change?
- The purpose of NHMRC’s grant program will not change – it will continue to aim to improve human health through research.
- NHMRC will continue to support research and research translation across the full spectrum of national health needs, fields of research, disciplines and public sector research settings through both investigator-initiated and priority-driven projects.
- The changes will not alter the amount of funding committed to the Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA). NHMRC will manage similar levels of funding through the MREA compared to financial year 2016/17, increasing slightly over the forward estimates in line with indexation.
- Allocation of funds from the MREA will continue to be based on research excellence, determined by independent expert review.
- NHMRC will continue to commit at least five per cent of the annual MREA allocation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.
- Grants that are already held by researchers at the time of implementation will be honoured under their existing schemes.
- NHMRC expects that the number of researchers supported directly and indirectly through the restructured grant program will not significantly change.
- Investigator Grants will cover the range of career stages, as Fellowships do currently.
- NHMRC will continue to support diversity in the research workforce, including researchers of different genders, those who work full-time and part-time and those with career breaks.
- NHMRC will continue to fund postgraduate scholarships.
- NHMRC will continue to support partnerships with end-users, commercialisation, translation and implementation science.
- NHMRC will continue to support infrastructure costs through the Equipment Grant scheme and the Independent Research Institute Infrastructure Support Scheme (IRIISS).