NHMRC Public Consultations

Skip Navigation and go to Content
Visit NHMRC website

Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
4
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Peter
Last Name: 
Fuller
Step 3 - A. Some questions for you
1. Which of the following best explains your interest in NHMRC’s fellowship schemes: (select ONE only): 
I am currently working in the health and medical research sector
2. If you are a health and medical researcher, which of the following descriptions best classifies your research? (select ONE only): 
Clinical science – please complete the next two questions
3. If you are a health and medical researcher, which of the following best describes the main source of funding that supports your salary? (select ONE only): 
NHMRC Scholarships and/or Fellowships
Step 3 - B. Consultations questions
Question 1: How should NHMRC’s funding balance between research grants and fellowships be adjusted as the total number of Project Grants available falls progressively over the next few years?: 
There are assumptions in the issue paper that one could dispute: 1. The role of Program Grants has been somewhat ignored. Clearly a large number of Fellows are involved with Program Grants rather than Project Grants and so just dealing with the Fellowship Scheme on the basis of Project Grant numbers is not rational. One can strongly argue that in times of such austerity, the current rule that allows Chief Investigators on Program Grants to also hold a Project Grant is an indulgence and not an affordable one. Although it was intended as a mechanism to allow Program Grant CIs to support younger investigators, the reality is that many Program Grant CIs see this as an entitlement and simply use it as an exercise for gaining money in addition to the quanta already allocated against their track record. They do this by using exactly the same track record again, therefore effectively double-dipping. Similarly, the analysis should involve other funding schemes such as Centres of Excellence, Development Grants, etc., all of which may involve Fellows. 2. There is a view (at least when I served on Research Committee) that a Fellow could be productively research-active to the advantage of the NHMRC, yet receive all their project funding from non-NHMRC sources such as DOD, NBCF, NIH etc. etc. 3. Another issue is the increase in budget size of Project Grants. A significant proportion of this is mismanagement of budget creep in the Project Grant process. The final flaw I would raise in the underlying assumptions relates to the premise that most grants are held by Chief Investigators who are employed through “universities, medical research institutes or hospitals”, not NHMRC Fellows. Looking at the data provided in Table 6, it is far from clear how accurate the data is and indeed for several this is acknowledged. Very few employees are funded purely by medical research institutes. In many universities those who appear to be university salaried actually hold NHMRC Fellowships [NHMRC has removed third party information] A significant issue in the Group of 8 universities has been an active program of shifting researchers off university salaries on to the Fellowship Scheme. Obviously many of these people are outstanding investigators; the net effect however is that the money saved by the institution has not been subject to the same competitive peer review as the Fellowships Scheme but is used by the institution to fund significantly lesser investigators. I would argue that by a more prudent approach to the management of Project Grants and to Fellowship eligibility, the question can be answered at least in the short term, without the need for wholesale demolition of the Fellowships Scheme.
Question 2: To increase the turnover of NHMRC Research Fellows, should these schemes be seen as ‘up and out schemes’, whereby Fellows wishing to reapply can only do so at a higher level?: 
The notion that the Fellowship Scheme should be “up and out” is appealing and indeed was the basis of one of the Figures in the original Wills Report. The fundamental fallacy is the question of “where to” once the researchers are “up and out”. Given that the vast majority of those currently in the Fellowship Scheme are ranked as “excellent” or “outstanding”, ejecting these people without a clear sense of where they will go is an exercise in destroying the Australian medical research capability. Thus, this scheme needs to be seen in a broader context. There was an assumption that researchers would for instance go to industry but the amount of biomedical activity in industry within this country remains very modest. There is also a view that people would go into senior university and/or hospital positions, however again both those sectors have not only decreased such positions but indeed have sought, as previously noted, cost-shifts into the Fellowships Scheme. In the clinical sector, matching fellowship support and clinical support in a timely and appropriate manner is often difficult with a disconnect between the two sectors and no appetite for hospital administrators to support research time. The notion that the new Academic Science Centres will make any difference to this is in the short to medium term is naïve. The university sector is highly dysfunctional and contributes to the problem in that the obsession with rankings and so-called “esteem factors” has driven somewhat of an “arms race” with successful researchers, preferably Fellows being actively sought by universities with subsidies going to Fellows to retain them so as to keep the research money and the prestige associated with that as well as to keep the outputs, which in turn generate dollars which then enhance metrics that define the institutions’ ranking. Rather like the sporting codes, what might be seen as healthy competition has to some extent created inflationary pressure that is not sustainable and is indeed dysfunctional. The majority of people that I have seen exit from science of late have gone into grants management, a perverse irony when one considers that the number of grants and potentially researchers, is likely to decrease!
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
The notion that there are too many levels is a minor issue. The only significant problem is that it creates a complexity for the peer review process.
Question 4: Noting the implications outlined in the Issues paper, should NHMRC extend the duration of Early Career Fellowships to more than 4 years and Career Development Fellowships beyond 5 years (to 7 or 10 years)?: 
It is very hard to see why the tenure of such awards should be stretched out beyond the current 5 years. Whilst some other prestigious schemes run to 7 years, perhaps with a rigorous review at 4 years, it is not clear that there is a capacity to do this. This is one of the discussion points that might be seen as “moving the deck chairs on the Titanic”. That being said, this document does not really address the diversity of Fellows and in particular the role of how the system integrates with those involved in other explicitly health professional roles.
Question 5: Should NHMRC identify and support strategic priority areas in order to build capacity for the future? What else should be done to support women and increase participation and success by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers?: 
I was a little surprised to find this question on the Agenda. I am not sure I entirely agree with the background and comments. The introduction of streams for biomedical, clinical and population health, (when I was involved with the then Training Awards Committee), had much more to do with rational peer review rather than any explicit recognition of the breadth of research needed. The notion of providing support linked to clinical and/or health professional responsibilities is a very good one as reflected in the Practitioner Fellowships and indeed there are some current Fellows that might be more appropriately supported on a Practitioner Fellowship rather than a standard Fellowship but whose entry into the Fellowships Scheme preceded the appearance of the Practitioner Fellowships. A major problem however is getting clear point-in-time linkage with the health service so that the whole package can be put in place. These are also perhaps a little open-ended in that the audit of how much time people spend in their respective roles is non-existent. The whole translational mantra is almost certainly a point-in-time thing which has been over-hyped to suit specific individual’s purposes. The notion of targeted people support in areas of need or work capacity building is not new and is entirely feasible within the existing schemes. It has been done in the past and can be done again if there is a will in Research Committee. It does not mean it automatically should happen but it does mean that it can happen as required. Issues of gender equity are indeed challenging. The comments correctly identify the biggest problem for NHMRC which has existed for many years, is not a selection bias but rather an application bias. Where schemes have been audited, with very few exceptions, where women apply, their success rates are the same or indeed better than those of the male applicants. The problem is generally one of a lack of applicants and therefore any review of this as a problem needs to address why women are not applying. Some of this can be explained by a lag phenomena, e.g. if the cohort applying for SPRF graduated at a time when only 11% of graduates were women, then 11% of applicants is entirely predictable, however of course that is not the case and even allowing for the inevitable lag associated with family etc. there are clearly some barriers which warrant further exploration. The need to continue to strive to improve the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Fellowships Scheme is a no-brainer and requires a series of solutions that are individual and distinct.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
The issue of encouraging diversity is challenging at a time of great stringency. The net effect of this, whether it is in Project Grants, Program Grants or in Fellowships is to drive a conservative agenda. It is intrinsic to having a very limited number of spots. To a certain extent the notion of diversity, a variety of backgrounds, alternate clear paths, etc. etc. is a luxury that can only be achieved in the face of adequate funding. Investing time in pondering this is probably not productive and would be better spent in trying to raise more research funds. The discussion document correctly identifies the problem of “moving the goal posts”; again drawing from my experiences in Training Awards, there was always pressure to address the exceptions. The reality is that it immediately becomes iniquitous, a fact that “self-interest” fails to grasp. The current approach of trying to judge achievement against opportunity is better than many schemes and perhaps would benefit from some greater refinement. It is difficult to judge and often is associated with somewhat arbitrary assessments.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
I am personally very sympathetic to the notion that an employing institution should be expected to provide more certainty. It would be my observation that certain institutions, particularly universities, are very keen to recruit individuals whilst they hold a Fellowship and/or grants, given the additional infrastructure that attracts as well as esteem factors, etc. etc. The institutions are very quick to drop these people once they are no longer getting an immediate return. Conversely, I have considerable sympathy for independent medical research institutes and health services which generally do not engage in these games and do not have additional streams of income and largely spend their money directly on research activities. Given that the NHMRC have elected to drop the 6th and 7th years that did exist at one time, it would seem not unreasonable to expect that an institution might be locked in to providing that support. In the case of the Early Career Fellowships, it is not clear how long that should be. It certainly should allow maximum opportunity for that person to fully establish themselves. It should not be beyond a year. I have particular sympathy for overseas fellowships which often yield a great long term reward for Australian research but can be a difficult re-entry exercise. For these I would be particularly keen to see a stronger commitment, noting that the institution is usually receiving infrastructure support for someone who costs them very little as they are operationally in another country and another institution. That is less clear with local fellowships. In the case of Career Development Fellowships, an obligatory 6th year from the institution would seem appropriate and one might argue for even 2 years in the case of the full fellowships, 5 + 7. If nothing else, it would certainly be interesting to see how the institutions react!
Question 8: Would this be achieved if NHMRC required institutions to commit to one or more years of ongoing support for researchers exiting from NHMRC Fellowships? : 
One however has to be careful that a situation does not arise where the NHMRC by choosing to improve capacity such as at hospitals, indigenous health centres, etc. might actively discourage recruitment of fellows lest they have a liability that they cannot afford.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
Finally as a lateral thought, the discussion paper does raise the issue of the ageing of the Fellowship workforce as with much of the community! It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, but one was surprised in recent rounds to see very senior colleagues being reappointed into the Fellowship Scheme. Often these people have much to contribute and indeed I have several colleagues who have long since exited the Fellowship Scheme and are continuing to make significant contributions, albeit often part-time. I wonder whether the NHMRC might consider what might be called an Emeritus or Distinguished Scientist scheme where senior Fellows of longstanding and significant eminence are able to achieve renewal but perhaps either by defining them as part-time or indeed simply at a lower rate of remuneration. My impression would be that many colleagues in this situation don’t necessarily seek to generate substantial income at this point in their career and would like to just “cover costs”. So the problem is the system is very binary, “all in” or “all out”, which may be neither strategic nor cost effective with this demographic.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016