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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
21
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Beverly
Last Name: 
Muhlhausler
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?: 
This is a hard one to answer - there is essentially no funding support for post-doctoral researchers other than fellowships or external grants (in particular project grants), so the reduction in the number of Project Grants awarded is severely limiting opportunities for early career post-docs who are not yet in a position to be competetive for fellowships or CIA funding to support their salary. I would support changes to the fellowship scheme at the upper end (in particular PRF, SPRF), whilst maintaining the numbers available at the lower levels, in particular ECF and CDF1. This will maximise the opportunity of ECRs to build a track record within the NHMRC system, something that at present is very, very difficult.
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?: 
I'm not sure that this is entirely appropriate at this time, since it would make it difficult for mid-career researchers. I feel that a major issue in the current scheme is the 'bottle-necking' that occurs as senior people rise through the ranks to the top of the scheme and then remain there for many years (well beyond retirement age in many cases). This reduces opportunities for younger researchers to compete for promotions within the fellowship scheme, and ultimately the whole system will be at a stand-still. Could there be a mechanism perhaps where researchers at Professor level who have a University/Faculty appointment are no longer eligible to apply for fellowships - for these individuals, fellowships are often a 'bonus' and not actually necessary for them to maintain their employment/research activity. The number of SRFs,PRFs and SPRFs awarded to individuals over 65 also needs to be looked at - since it is becoming increasingly common and limiting opportunities for early and mid- career researchers.
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, I think there an appropriate number of levels, and there is no reason why 'rising stars' can't apply for a higher level, or apply before their current fellowship expires if they so wish.
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)?: 
This would certainly help ensure stability across these critical years of building a research career. My feeling is that 5 years is a good time frame for the ECFs, but that the CDFs (which are currently 4 years, not 5 I believe) should be longer - perhaps 8 to 10 years, subject to satisfactory performance of course.I am concerned that in the current environment, however, this might make it harder for 'first-timers' to enter the system, so needs to be carefully weighed up against how this would impact on the number of these fellowships that were awarded. Having a longer tenure would certainly help to encourage women to stay in the sector for longer.
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?: 
Increasing the flexibility of the fellowship scheme (allowing part-time and maternity leave to be incorporated into the fellowship) is important - and the NHMRC has made good steps towards doing this, but more could be done. From my experience on GRP panels over the last 2 years, time off due to maternity leave and part-time employment is taken into account, but it doesn't seem to be recognised that parenthood is an on-going commitment, and that it unavoidably impacts on productivity/opportunities in the longer term (especially when it comes to things such as committee memberships, overseas travel etc etc). There needs to be a better way of capturing this information. From personal experience and from many close friends who were excellent scientists who have chosen to move away from a career in science, the biggest issue is job security - I personally feel that extending the lengths of the fellowships and getting institutions to co-invest would help greatly in encouraging women to stay in research. I don't necessarily support allocating 'strategic priority areas', since these can change across the duration of a fellowship, with the exception of aboriginal health research. I think it would be an excellent initiative for the NHMRC to set aside a pool of money for fellowships specifically reserved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Researchers - and to have criteria which consider service to the community etc as well as the 'classic' track record metrices.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
I see definite advantages in encouraging individuals to return to research after working in other areas (in particular industry or business), and there does need to be a way to take this into account. Perhaps a separate scheme that is specifically targeted at individuals who have done this is needed? Part-time fellowships which allow individuals to integrate different areas would also be beneficial.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
I believe that this is critical. This seems to vary hugely across institutions - [NHMRC has removed third party information] there is no security blanket (i.e. any funding beyond the end of one fellowship if the next application is not successful). I would like to see some more consistency across institutions in how they support their fellows - in particular, I know of some institutions that offer Fellows permanent employment contracts once they have been successful in securing one fellowhship and others that offer nothing! At the very least, I believe institutions should be required to commit to at least one (and preferably 2) years of ongoing support for fellows at the end of their fellowships. I also feel that offering some $ with the fellowship, particularly for the ECF and CDF schemes, that can be used by the Fellow to support/build their research activity, would be an excellent initiative. This has worked well for the ARC schemes, and encourages co-investment on the part of the University to support the individual researcher and make them more competitive for the next stage in the fellowship scheme. It would also be good to see the NHMRC provide the opportunity for fellows to be jointly appointed across 2 different institutions, particularly at the ECF and CDF stage, since I think this would encourage collaboration and assist in supporting career development.
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? : 
See answer to Q7, yes I believe this would be a worthwhile initiative.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
My feeling is that it would be appropriate at all levels of the fellowship scheme (with the caveat above that those individuals who have University/Faculty appointments for whom a fellowship is a 'bonus' not be eligible).

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016