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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
67
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Stephen
Last Name: 
Gregory
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?: 
Clearly the number of Fellowships must fall. While we all want the best researchers to have a career path, at the moment the Fellowship scheme is laughably far from providing that (I would be interested to know what percentage of Professorial Fellows have come through the ranks on Fellowship funding!). If we accept that there simply is not money enough to fund all the great research projects that are put forward by outstanding teams (many of which do not contain fellows), then it would make no sense to reduce these in order to fund more individuals who are going to become less and less likely to actually get grants to do any work. The fact that highly paid doctors with complete job security are now appropriating research money to do their mandated token bit of research on the side does not help - while this continues we cannot expect to hold the current numbers of real career research fellows. In my opinion the McKeon report was irresponsible in not being clearer about the priorities if no new money was available: it makes no sense to implement some of the "reforms" that would be excellent given a blank cheque, when in reality you have to cannibalize critical programs to fund them. Going to 5 year project grants is a classic of this type.
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?: 
This question exemplifies the utter failure of the Fellowship system to provide a career structure. How is it valuable to get newcomers into the scheme if we cannot fund the careers of those with more achievements? Do we toss them out because we want new ideas? This is madness when we have invested so much money in their professional development. In my opinion the primary problem lies in the pyramid structure: why are we encouraging 600 ECRs to consider a career in HMR when only 100 of them will be able to continue? I cannot recommend this as a career choice to my best graduates. If people must be forced out of the Fellowship system it should be done early, not when the researchers are in their 50s with a lifetime of experience to offer. Those who make it into the system should be expecting to stay in it (assuming the current levels of excellence). Promotion to professorial levels should not be expected or demanded. If anything, it should become harder than it currently is, to allow funding of more grants.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
A career in Research Fellowships roughly stretches from age 30 to age 60. It makes sense to check that those in the system are performing at the level expected about once every 5 years. That means about six applications. Seven is not obviously too many, but I do not see how the number impedes the career progression: you can apply for a Professorial Fellowship at 30 if you want. In my opinion, the system would work better if it did not demand movement to higher levels: a researcher who spent their entire career performing at a moderate level could then expect to retain their CDF-level appointment at a great saving to the NHMRC and benefit to Australia which would lose their experience and training if they fell out of an Up-or-Out system.
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)?: 
It would be great to have all Fellowships extended, but it would be unrealistic in the current system. Unless the number of Fellowships is significantly reduced, extending their duration would just further deplete the amount of money available for project grants, and without project grants, these Fellowships are useless. I would support an extended duration, but only accompanied by a drastic cut in the number available (particularly at the early stages).
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?: 
Strategic research planning has a long history of abject failure. [NHMRC has removed inappropriate content] The best way to build capacity is to support great work, as judged by the international scientific community. Supporting second-rate work that happens to fit in with the flavour of the month is a great way to persuade the best minds to go elsewhere. Women will only stay in this business when they perceive that it offers them a stimulating career that can fit around their family obligations. The realities of competitive science mean that those who spend more time and head-space focussed on their work will be more productive that those who do not, due to competing priorities. There is no way to compensate for this: women with families do not have the CVs of women without families, and they realize that without the publications, they have no future in this business. No amount of lip service to "opportunity" avoids the blunt reality of publications. I would support a scheme that only funded women with families, but I doubt this would be popular. I have no idea how to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, never having met one.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
Years post-PhD is absurd and should be changed as soon as possible. It takes no account of what happened in that time. I recommend that there be no constraints on applications: if a level D academic applies for a CDF, they will probably look good and so they should - they are probably a more productive researcher than someone 5 years post-PhD. If so, they are a good appointment for Australian HMR, though it may be tough to get them, given the lower salary. If that means more people are reliant on grant funded positions until they become productive, then so be it. With five year grants this is not such a bad fate. Assuming eligibility will not be discarded, I would recommend judging seniority by number of grants held as CI.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
Absolutely. Will they? Not likely. The Universities and Research Institutes are all under extreme financial pressure in the current political climate, so even if they supported such a notion, they are unlikely to fund it. I question the statement that the NHMRC "cannot provide secure employment tenure". Why not? How is it good for Australian HMR to pour literally millions of dollars into the career of a Fellow, then to cut them off at the peak of their career? Why is the concept of a safety net year not built into the Fellowship scheme? Yes, it would mean fewer Fellows, but at least they would have some prospect of a career. It strikes me as naive to suppose that the Institutions will pick up the cost of this. Either the NHMRC wants to build research capacity or it doesn't, and you can't build research capacity if you keep throwing away highly trained scientists.
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? : 
[NHMRC has removed third party information] that would result in a strong disincentive to allow any NHMRC Fellows to be appointed. [NHMRC has removed third party information] simply cannot not fund such a scheme at the moment, though [NHMRC has removed third party information] all the academics have always supported this idea. I expect most Institutions are in a similar position. While we all want this to happen, the Institutions strike me as most unlikely to be the source of the money.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
Definitely not - if anything it should be the reverse! We know that most ECRs are not going to make it, so why would we keep propping up their limited chances? Senior Fellows on the other hand represent a massive investment that it would be insane to throw away just because their latest Cell paper has been delayed by six months.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016