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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
18
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
David
Last Name: 
Whiteman
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): 
Public health research – 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?: 
Assuming a fixed NHMRC budget, then the total spend is the sum of PROJECTS + FELLOWSHIPS + [OTHER SCHEMES]. QUESTION 1 (above) assumes that the amount invested in [OTHER SCHEMES] also remains constant, but this would seem an untenable starting point. Surely, the question of fellowship funding is wholly conditional on all other components of the NHMRC spend. I believe strongly that ensuring Australia retains a talented scientific workforce should be NHMRC's primary aim, and then providing them with sufficient funds to achieve (at least some of) their scientific projects. There are several schemes which should be considered for serious critical analysis before Fellowships are axed, including CREs, TRIPs, and even Programs (which could be restructured, for example, so that the funding awarded relates to scientific need, not to arbitrary quanta based on track record).
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?: 
No. The question assumes that turnover is desirable, which at one level is probably true, but only as long as the system maintains quality throughout. Also, it would seem that the base of the pyramid has broadened enormously in recent years, with more than 600 ECFs supported. This is a vast number - for whom the majority probably have no realistic prospect of leading internationally competitive teams. Thus, the bigger question is 'what is the right number of fellows for a country like Australia, and how do we fund that number?'. It might be argued that many of the 600 ECFs and 256 CDFs are good, but not destined for an internationally competitive career.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
No. There are too many fellows in the system. Rapidly rising stars will be supported by their institutes anyway, and will be promoted internally. This happens all the time. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that NHMRC should get out of the fellowships business altogether, and rather distribute the funds to insitutions so that they can make the decisions about salary support at the ground level. (see below)
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)?: 
No. This does not solve the problems. The problems are (a) too many people appyling for fellowship support at all levels and (b) too little money to support even a fraction of them. One could argue that the NHMRC should not be in the business of providing individual fellowships. An alternative model would be that the NHMRC awards research grants (projects, programs etc), and that all of the money currently set aside for individual fellowships is distributed to the institutions solely for scientific salary support. The formula for distributing money could be similar to that used for distributing IRIIS funding (i.e. a percentage of total funding attracted through Project/Program funding), but instead of being 20%, would be 50% (or whatever the proportion of NHMRC endowment is dedicated to fellowships). In this way, NHMRC does not have to determine the career pyramid centally, and does not have to institute costly fellowship review schemes. The institutions would have the responsibility of identifying the optimum mix of scientists to achieve their objectives.
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?: 
No - these responsibilities (i.e. strategic employment and diversity and opportunity) should be devolved to the institutions. It is the institutions that actually employ the scientists anyway, so the fellowship scheme actually makes their role harder, since they have no control over the decisions to award fellowships or not. Given the extreme competition between fellowship applicants, the decision as to whether one or other applicant is funded in any given year can be hairs breadth, and there are data to show that these 'line ball' decisions could go either way depending on the size and composition of the fellowship panel. Again, distributing the 'people support' funds back to institutions should simplify the process for NHMRC, and should - in theory - remove the gaming and 'c.v.-stuffing' that occupies so much wasted time, and should make scientists more accountable to their institutions for their salaries.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
I do not understand this question.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
Yes - provided they have better control of the money to employ scientists. The fellowship scheme is unique, but capricious and flawed. While there is no question that those supported by NHMRC fellowships are, on the whole, outstanding scientists, the broader question is whether the scheme itself is enhancing or hindering the development of Australia's scientific talent. One can hardly blame the institutions for being hesitant to offer 'certainty' when they have no power to determine who receives NHMRC salary support and who does not.
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? : 
It might, but one extra year of compulsory funding after being 'dropped' from the scheme is cold comfort for the abandoned Fellow. Moreover, it does not compensate the years of grinding anxiety that most Fellows experience while on the seemingly endless treadmill of appointment/re-appointment/promotion. Suffice to say that the current Fellowships system is not one that fosters a happy, healthy workforce. (It may be productive, but the Fellowships workforce could arguably be even more productive if Fellows - particularly those early in their career - did not spend as much time on peripheral activities designed to complement their c.v. rather than focussing solely on their science.)
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
No - for the same reason that institutions should not be forced to accept decisions about salary support from an external body over which they have no control. For example, following this review, the NHMRC might decide to further increase the number of ECFs or CDFs awarded and thus cut back on SRFs/PRFs/SPRFs. This proposed policy (of requiring 'rescue funding' for previously funded Fellows) would then bind the institutions to retain these junior people when there is no prospect of them receiving future funding. I believe an alternative system to explore would be to dismantle the Fellowships scheme and let institutions sort out their own optimum mix of personnel, using their NHMRC 'salary support' funds strategically to identify and retain the best talent to meet their institutional objectives.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016