NHMRC Public Consultations

Skip Navigation and go to Content
Visit NHMRC website

Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

Step 1 - This submission reflects the views of
Organisation Name: 
Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society
Please identify the best term to describe the Organisation: 
Step 2 - Personal Details
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 research support schemes (e.g.: Program Grants, Centres of Research Excellence or Project Grants).
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 difficult question as phrased, but resolution of the Fellowship Scheme crisis is not solely a matter of money. The real question is that, if individuals at Fellowship level are essential for the conduct of high level research, and the ANZBMS believes that they are, then how should these people be funded? As stated below, we believe that for both the current health and the future proofing of medical research in Australia, it is essential to maintain the best of individuals at Fellowship level in the system. If there is to be attrition in the research workforce, these people should not be lost.
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?: 
It is very clear that there are important structural problems with the NHMRC Fellowship Scheme, which need to be addressed immediately. The major issues are: turnover, eligibility, and age of Fellows. Whether there should be turnover of Fellows depends on what other ways there are of supporting outstanding researchers, who are critical for a particular research enterprise. Clearly, such people need to be maintained, and ideally in a way where they are not continually anxious about their future. This issue is dealt with under Q7. below but is not one that can be solved unilaterally via the NHMRC, since the NHMRC budget is unlikely to increase sufficiently. It requires tripartite discussions between the Universities and Research institutes, in which the Fellows work, the Government and the NHMRC. A major problem with the Fellowship Scheme has its roots in the removal of eligibility criteria for becoming an NHMRC Fellow. This resulted in established investigators at levels D and E in universities outcompeting younger applicants for Fellowships, while freeing up funds for those people to use in their departments. While this may have seemed reasonable, its application without considering the consequences on the scheme overall was disastrous in terms of limiting opportunities for developing researchers. The data provided with the Consultation Paper (Table 7A) show that individuals at and well past normal retirement age are currently funded in the Fellowship Scheme. We regard this as counterproductive because it removes opportunity for individuals still trying to develop their research careers. No one would argue that these older people are not excellent researchers, but their retention in the scheme has had serious consequences for maintaining a biomedical research capability in Australia. The dimensions of this problem are unclear because the number of new appointments versus reappointments is difficult to discern from the annual Fellowship announcements.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
This is probably not a major issue. However, the current situation of needing to guess which level to apply for requires overhaul. We believe that fellowship aspirants should be able to apply according to the written criteria and be assessed as suitable for a particular fellowship level even if they have not applied specifically for that level. This is because the current criteria do not describe what is actually required to be appointed at each of the levels. For example, the reality is that individuals below the equivalent of Level D or E are unlikely to be appointed at SRF, although the criteria suggest that lower levels of achievement are sufficient.
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)?: 
None of these approaches is likely to solve the current problem of obtaining personal support to link ECF funding with the next fellowship levels. The ANZBMS believes that accurate demographic data are required to determine sustainable numbers of individuals to support at Early Career level, together with the other measures described here, to ensure that a greater proportion of outstanding ECFs can obtain CDFs as true career development mechanisms, rather than the much later career awards that CDFs have become.
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?: 
This is a difficult issue. Not surprisingly, we in Bone and Joint research would make a case for more researchers in our field receiving fellowships, based on musculoskeletal conditions being a National Health Priority. Every other field will argue similarly. It is better to put maximum effort into fixing the Fellowship Scheme.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
The current transition from PhD to Post-doctoral etc has served us well.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
Currently, these employing institutions are looking despairingly for ways to retain people at fellowship level. This occurs in an ad hoc manner, with funds being found for gap years and to make up the difference between EB arrangements in these institutes and what the NHMRC awards. There needs to be a much better structure to all of this, so that the employing institutions know what they are up for. Questions 7-9 return us to a consideration of how to effectively deal with the issue of finding funding for outstanding young and mid-career biomedical researchers. To reiterate, this issue is not one that can be solved unilaterally via the NHMRC. It requires tripartite discussions between the Universities and Research institutes, in which the Fellows work, the Government and the NHMRC. It is essential that a generation of talented researchers, trained at great expense to Australia, and now productive, bright and innovative, are not lost to research. The metrics tell us that these are the people whose energy drives the research, who write the papers, and who train the post-graduate students. They are therefore critical to the output of universities, although there are often not the mechanisms to support them within universities. It is in the national interest to maintain these best and brightest individuals and therefore national mechanisms need to be explored, which will include but not be limited to a revamped Fellowship Scheme.
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? : 
This is a partial answer but, as in Q7, a more complete solution is needed.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
This is a partial answer but, as in and Q4 and Q7, a more complete solution is needed.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016