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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
9
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Sarah
Last Name: 
Dunlop
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): 
institutional funds (possibly derived from multiple sources).
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?: 
NHMRC’s stand in the current economic climate is to work within the budget. In previous times when we were threatened with declining funding, we were all out there lobbying and achieved a doubling. Convincing politicians to increase funding and generate prosperity through medial research is a far sounder long term option economically compared to propping up an ailing car industry or wringing our hands over the ailing mining magnates. However, given static funding, the number of Fellowships would have to be reduced to get a balance between Fellowships and project grants, the numbers of which are declining to depressingly low levels. Exactly how is the challenge to prevent the demise of a system and capacity that has been the jewel in the NHMRC crown.
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?: 
This would be highly competitive and even more so than already. A 5- year step may too fast. It would be interesting to see how many teaching and research academic staff progress from Level A to B, to C, D & E over 5 year stints. Maybe they do so at the lower levels, but probably not the higher ones, unless meteoric superstars (although these are the sorts of people you want to support). Such data on academic staff would be interesting to help shape NHRC policy. Possibly a limit of 2 applications at anyone level before having to apply for the next; or extend the duration of the Fellowship with the expectation that re-application would be at the next level.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
Yes, there are 6 Fellowship levels, one too many. Suggest reducing the Fellowship levels to 5 and aligning with academic levels i.e. ECRs = Level A; CDF = Level B; collapse SRFA and B into 1 i.e. SRF - Level C; PRF = Level D and SPRF = Level E. The scheme is attracts very high performing individuals and experience shows us that quality is outstripping the level of the Fellowship; e.g. as outlined in the paper, A/Prof levels are applying for CDFs etc. The scheme also suffers from having SPRFs and PRFs above aged 65. I am always surprised that individuals apply at that age. Why not set up a scheme for Emeritus Fellows? At this age, providing one has appropriate superannuation, staff often find effectively themselves working for nothing. Retire, so you don’t draw a salary, but have all the other benefits of recognition, administration support etc etc. and just apply for project support. However, this might be hard to prevent given enterprise bargaining agreements. Nevertheless, tackling this would free up funding for progression of younger researchers through the scheme.
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)?: 
Given the static overall funding, the principle should be ensuring that Fellows are performing at increasingly higher levels as they progress through each Fellowship. Stating the obvious, but If the scheme is aligned to 5 academic levels (see above) with the option of only 1 application at any one level, 5 year Fellowships would allow a successful Fellow to progress to SPRF over 25 years; 6 year Fellowships over 30 years and 7 year Fellowships over 35 years. A hybrid model might be better comprising 1) 5 years for ECR and CDF to give enough time to develop and also check high performance relative to current standards (which seem to go up with every year) in a relatively short time frame (4 years given the annual funding cycle) and avoid the risk lack of progression; and 2) 7 years for SRF, PRF and SPRF to allow enough time to continue build/development with re-application at the next level ensuring progression of the best.
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?: 
Need to have a balance between targeted areas and pure basic. Usual argument; very hard to pick winners and so the engine room of basic science should be funded and it will often be the case that answers for targeted areas will come unexpectedly from pure research. NHMRC also might like to consider building capacity better and more effectively by increasing the number of practitioners who might like to do PhDs as well as increasing the number of Practitioner Fellowships.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
The only way to do this is on a case-by-case basis that is not purely numbers-based. For example, counting the numbers of publications and funding awarded to some-one who had an 8 year career break to raise a family needs to take the deceleration that they have to overcome once they have re-entered the workforce. I am not sure this is fully taken into account.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
ARC has done this with their Future Fellowship scheme with possibility of ongoing positions, at least in some Institutions, being offered after a staggeringly meager 4 year Fellowship (subject to performance etc and embedding in teaching). This is currently having a profound impact on staffing within some Institutions. The issue of such “cost-shifting” needs more discussion and a full understanding of expectations from the funding agency, which wants full commitment to research, as well as from the host Institution which wants contributions to teaching as well as service in addition to research. The funding models are such that one cannot possibly earn one’s income from just research activity (paper, grant infrastructure & PhD completions). Teaching large classes is the only activity that earns sufficient income.
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? : 
No. A longer-term strategy is required to support the best in their transition to academic T&R positions or to support them properly via a Fellowship.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
No. The principles should apply at all levels.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016