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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
14
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Ed
Last Name: 
Stanley
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): 
Basic 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?: 
The actual number of grants and the number of fellowships is immaterial. Indeed, framing the problem in these terms is disingenuous and deliberately misrepresents the actual problem - It is the total amount of money in the system that will dictate the viability of sector. Shifting money from one pool to another will simply lead fellowship and project grant applicants to adjust the manner in which they apply for money. I do believe the fellowship system is seriously flawed and that there are other ways in which salary support could be provided to worthy researchers. However, first the research community needs to agree whether having a specific scheme for salary support at any level is sensible. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable for the NHMRC to say that salaries should simply be supported in the context of project grant applications - top researchers should be able to obtain 5 year project grants that contained an allocation for their salary. If, on the other hand, it is decided that salary support grants are desirable, then the NHMRC should decide on a what fraction of its budget it wants to assign specifically to supporting "top" researchers. I would advocate that this fraction of the budget should then be distributed to research institutions on the basis of a formula that took into account the amount of (dollars) NHMRC grants that that institution attracts (say, averaged over 5 years). It would then be up to institute directors to decide where this money would be best spent. Such an arrangement would eliminate the need for the essentially flawed fellowship review processes. It would also eliminate the need for a fellowship structure because the salary support would be context dependent. It would give institute directors more power to shape the future of the research within their institutes and enable a more nimble response to changing research environments.
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?: 
My answer to this question is contingent on the comments made in relation to question 1. Increasing the turnover of fellows has not been justified as an endpoint. Although the proposal of an "up or out" scheme would increase turnover, there is no reason to think it would make the Australian medical research sector more productive. All such a scheme would achieve is shifting the career uncertainty from one group of individuals to another.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
In relation to my answer to question 1 - there are too many fellowship levels. In my view the fellowship scheme should be ended and the decision about which researchers to provide salary support to should be handed to institute directors or leaders. Universities and Medical research institutes are perfectly capable, and indeed, best placed, to identify and support "rising stars". Because it is in the best interests of these institutions to support good people, they should be enabled to make those choices.
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)?: 
Continuing on my comments from above, I think that money for early career or development fellowships should be provided to institutions (if everyone agrees that this is a category worth funding). The institutions would then be able to dictate how long and to what degree this support was provided. It would also enable institutes to spread the money in a way that provided them with optimal outcome.
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?: 
The research institutes are best placed to decide where research is heading. If the NHMRC wants to support new initiatives then this should take the form of an open tender for new ideas - that would be reviewed on using the usual criteria of feasibility and track record. In terms of support for women, the current methods for taking into account time lost through parenting are completely inadequate - and the application of rules regarding parenting duties (during the grant review process) highly subjective. I would argue again that if the NHMRC wants to support specific categories of people then it should first decide what fraction of the budget will be provided for this policy decision - and then this fraction distributed to the employing institutions to administer (within the constraints of the desired outcome).
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
This question makes no sense.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
No. Institutions should operate under the same rules of engagement as applies in the wider community. It would of course be nice if researchers received more certainty - but this is really a supply and demand issue. Indeed, the uncertainty for researchers in Australia stems from the complete dearth of alternative employers, particularly in the private sector. This has the effect of making every medical researcher in Australia a contractor to the government in a landscape where the government dictates overall demand. People falling out of this system are effectively forced out of research altogether, a situation leading to great angst.
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? : 
Requiring ongoing support for those exiting the fellowship scheme is simply going to delay a decision point for the people and the institution concerned - which is not going to really help anyone in the long run. This is also a supply and demand issue - which at the moment, is skewed because of an oversupply of good researchers. The only way to increase certainty for researchers is reduce the supply side (given the demand side is constrained by NHMRC funding). This reduction in supply could be facilitated using the funding mechanism outlined above.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
I don't believe this will help anyone in the long run. The current career uncertainty for researchers stems from the fact there are too many people looking for two few positions. The research institutions (MRIs and universities) should be given the means to decide what fraction of research funding goes to supporting people at each stage their career - starting from PhD students (I would also scrape the APA scheme and give the money directly to the institutes based on the formula outlined above) all the way through to laboratory heads. NHMRCs intervention in this process merely serves to distort the market in way that does not take into account the greater funding landscape.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016