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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
54
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Moira
Last Name: 
O'Bryan
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 NHMRC Fellowship scheme provides a career structure for biomedical researchers who are among the cream of Australia’s talent. They are the engine the drives innovation in the health sciences sector and are the vehicle for translation of knowledge into heath outcome for Australians. They are essential elements in the continuity of health delivery and an investment in the future of health and health-related industries in Australia. They also make major contributions to the international ranking of research intensive Universities and as such education-based economic returns for the country. The Fellowship scheme in its current format rewards excellence, and it is essential that such a structure be maintained so as to maximize the chances of Australians making transformative discoveries in biomedical science and reaping the rewards of those discoveries through building elite human capacity, and translation of discoveries into clinical outcomes and commercialization. Indeed I would argue it should be expanded. Under the present structure, as because of the competitive nature of science, biomedical researchers operate within a career framework that is highly uncertain. It is unthinkable that this sector be further jeopardised even further through lack of a career path and appropriate funding and security. I am concerned that some of the proposals below are patches and half-measures that do not properly address the current crisis which affects all NHMRC funding schemes. Devolving the responsibility for Fellow’s salary support back to the host institute is discriminatory and will not work, and furthermore such a scheme would remove the vital element of career structure that selects, recognizes and celebrates excellence. NHMRC spending represents only 1.15% of the 69.4 billion dollars that Australians spend on health. A broader dialogue is essential to address the current crisis. In response to this specific question, it is imperative that funding for the NHMRC be substantially increased in the near term and into the future if the Government hopes to retain this important sector. In the short term however, I recommend a reversion to a standard 3-year project grant funding cycle rather than the 5-year term currently being promoted by Government. Implementing this will result in an immediate increase in project grant success rates that will serve to support the sector more broadly, including alleviating some of the critical stress on the NHMRC Fellowship scheme. A 5-year grant cycle is a healthy framework that brings stability to competitive research programs and allows higher risk research to be undertaken. However, it is simply unaffordable in these austere times in which funding has been flat for many years and effectively declining.
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 believe that the structure of the current NHMRC scheme is broadly correct. The ‘up and out’ approach described is counter to the NHMRC’s stated aim of the supporting the best and the brightest researchers within the fellowship scheme. I am strongly supportive of all applications being assessed on an equal footing and relative to opportunity. If Fellows are no longer competitive they are ‘moved out’ by the selective nature of the program. I would be supportive of the implementation of an upper age limit for fellows.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
I believe the Fellowship scheme structure is broadly correct. The scheme is approximately pyramidal and its 6 levels are appropriate to reflect the diversity of career stages, research styles, levels of achievement and timing to peak success. I do not recommend reducing the number of fellowship levels as a strategy for reducing the number of fellowships. We note that there are options for younger, high achieving fellows to obtain accelerated promotion. I would however, be supportive of converting the current ECF and CDFs fellowships to a 5 year tenure, but keeping the total pool of funding they cost the same. This would result in a 25% reduction of the total number of fellowships funded but would get increased security to those in the scheme. This may serve to decrease competition for mid-career research (albeit by increasing it for ECRs). A second underlying issue is whether the structure of the Early Career and Career Development Fellowship scheme maximally allows us to pick “winners” early in their independent research careers as opposed to filtering them out gradually from a larger pool that has enjoyed funding for 4-8 years? Currently, Early Career Fellowships have a cut-off at 2 years post-PhD. Effectively, this funds researchers who have done a good PhD without allowing review committees discriminatory power to pick long-term winners. In other words, under the current structure the Early Career Fellowships are disproportionately rewards those who were lucky enough to be trained in excellent PhD labs. I recommend extending the cut-off for Early Career Fellowships to 5 years post-PhD as this will allow some more discriminatory power. The strategy may decrease the base of the Fellowship pyramid, freeing up additional funds, whilst maintaining healthy competition at higher levels.
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)?: 
The conversion of Early Career and Career Development Fellowships to a 5-year term is desirable. I do not support the extension of full time Fellowship lengths beyond 5 years, however, I would be supportive of the possibility of people being able to extend their fellowship beyond 5 years in instances of part time employment eg. related to maternity leave or illness.
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 believe that the best research should be funded regardless of the field or skill set. This means allocation of fellowships on the basis of excellence only. Quality should be assessed relative to the World stage. There is danger in Governments imposing influence on the use of otherwise competitive research funding allocated on the basis of excellence. If the NHMRC, or Government, believes there is an urgent need for research into a particular area, additional money should be found from sources outside of the core NHMRC funds and directed to special initiatives through the NHMRC or other agencies. Everything possible should be done to assure that the allocation of NHMRC research funds does not become the subject of political influence, even if well-meaning. As above, I recommend flexibility in the duration of fellowships that allow women (or men) to return to work in a part time capacity. I also recommend the creation of a small number of 1-2 year return-to work Fellowships for elite researchers allocated on the basis of excellence in achievement and promise, and a small number of 4 year fellowships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that are also highly selective, as special initiatives unrelated to core NHMRC funds. These Fellowships would be administered by the NHMRC.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
Not that I am aware of.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
researchers coming off Fellowships devolve to employing institutions. This would be highly discriminatory and favour more wealthy institutions. Institutes could only guarantee this if “funds were available”, which provides an obvious loophole. The scheme erodes the allocation of research funds based on excellence. While I note that several of the larger institutions do guarantee a one or two year safety net for fellows, for many others this is not possible as the implementation of such a scheme would undermine their viability. While a level of flexibility is desirable, particularly as the current funding crisis begins to have a real impact on employment, in the absence of greatly increased infrastructure funding for research, it will not be possible. Even in larger Universities such a scheme would inevitably be linked to a significantly higher teaching load and examples are already evident. On the one hand, this may undermine the mantra of most universities that excellent research underpins excellence in teaching. On the other hand, we are aware that universities are ranked on the basis of research output not teaching. Devolving fellowships back to host institutions may therefore lead to the retention of excellent researchers who are sub-quality teachers at the expense of retaining their excellent teachers who do less research. Thus, there is impact far beyond the current discussion of the fellowship scheme. We recommend a larger debate on the issues surrounding research funding in Australia.
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? : 
As outlined above, in the absence of increased infrastructure funding for research this is not possible.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
The challenges facing Fellows at all levels are equally significant. As such, any solution needs to be applied across all levels of the Fellowship scheme.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016