Overview

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 new 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:

  1. Investigator Grants, which will provide the highest-performing researchers at all career stages with funding for their salary (if required) and a significant research support package
  2. Synergy Grants, which will provide $5 million per grant for outstanding multi disciplinary research teams to work together to answer complex questions
  3. Ideas Grants, which will support innovative and creative research projects, and be available to researchers with bright ideas at all career stages
  4. Strategic and Leveraging Grants, which will support priority driven research that addresses identified national needs.

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.

Background

Under the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992, NHMRC administers the Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) in order to provide assistance to institutions and people engaged in medical research and for medical research training.

Expenditure of the MREA is currently spread across a variety of grant schemes:

  • Project Grants, which provide research support for individuals or teams of researchers to carry out individual projects
  • Program Grants, which provide research support for high calibre researchers to undertake multidisciplinary collaborative research
  • Fellowships, which provide salary support for researchers at all career levels, and Postgraduate Scholarships which provide stipends to outstanding graduates to undertake a PhD or master’s degree
  • A range of other schemes that support priority-driven research and other strategic research.

The changes to the NHMRC funding structure are the result of the Structural Review of NHMRC’s Grant Program (the Review). The Review was undertaken to determine whether NHMRC’s research funding schemes could be restructured to optimise the significant public investment in health and medical research. The Review responded to feedback from the research sector that the work required to prepare and evaluate high numbers of grant applications was placing an unsustainable burden on applicants and on the peer review community, resulting in less time for them to conduct research. Concerns were also raised that researchers, particularly those at early and mid-career stages, were becoming discouraged from applying for NHMRC funding. In addition, concerns were raised that researchers were more likely to propose, and reviewers more likely to favour, less innovative research.

An Expert Advisory Group with a range of experiences and perspectives was established to provide expert guidance and leadership. After considering data relating to NHMRC’s grant program, along with information about research funding systems in other countries, the Expert Advisory Group developed three alternative research funding structures. Intended to stimulate feedback from the research sector, these three proposals formed the basis of a consultation paper that was released for public comment in July 2016. There was strong engagement from the sector, with over 1,000 people attending eight public forums in major capital cities and 329 written submissions received. Feedback was diverse and informative. While no clear preference for one of the three structures emerged, many submissions noted the need for change and suggested different structures – most commonly one with elements of each of those presented in the consultation paper.

After considering all feedback, the Expert Advisory Group advised on the development of a new grant program structure, finalising its advice during December 2016-January 2017.

On 15 March 2017, following targeted consultation with a number of peak bodies and stakeholder groups, and extensive discussion and advice from NHMRC’s Research Committee and other Principal Committees, the Council of NHMRC advised the CEO to proceed with restructuring NHMRC’s grant program in order to address the aims of the review. After considering the advice provided as a result of the review, the CEO decided to proceed with implementation of the new structure.

The following table summarises the key milestones in the Review and provides related resources.

Date Activity

28 January 2016

Structural Review of NHMRC’s Grant Program announced by Professor Anne Kelso

March 2016

Formation and meeting of Structural Review Expert Advisory Group

May 2016

Release of public consultation details

July-August 2016 Public consultation carried out