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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
69
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Alex
Last Name: 
Delbridge
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): 
Other sources
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?: 
Continued funding for strong fellowship applicants should be favoured over funding for Project Grants. Nationally and internationally competitive researchers will be able to secure research funds from philanthropic and other funding sources (e.g. the NIH) to support continued research. It is important to retain these researchers in the NHMRC system. Hopefully the funding from government sources will increase in the future as outsourcing the costs of Australian research to NGOs and other governments is a national embarrassment.
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?: 
The majority of NHMRC Research Fellows have proven themselves as productive and valuable contributors to their fields and to Australian science more generally. Research Fellowship recipients should be funded indefinitely with rigorous review of their performance after every 5 year period (with addition review after a further 2 years should performance be deemed unsatisfactory at any of the routine review processes). To further simplify the system each Research Fellow could also be provided with 'baseline' funding for limited research perhaps at 100k/year in addition to their own salary to fund research at their own discretion. This could replace of the Program Grant system with Fellows seeking further research funding through the Project Grant scheme and/or from other sources. Perhaps a better means of providing for successive generations of researchers would be to provide a career cap (or age restriction) on the number of NHMRC project grants that a researcher may hold as CIA (and as a CI of any specification) over their career. If such a scheme was constructed with care it could be used to encourage senior investigators to 'wind down' their direct involvement in research in the latter stages of their career (i.e. 60+) and act increasingly as a mentor for more junior group leaders.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
The fellowship system is unnecessarily complicated and does not foster confidence in young(er) researchers that excellence in research will be rewarded with continued funding. Perhaps counter-intuitively in the years post PhD young researchers should be given every incentive to contribute to other professions, government and industry sectors by transitioning away from academic science. Such a system would enhance the value to society of the rigourous scientific training offered by a PhD in medical science by seeing these benefits flow into non-academic settings and ensuring ample funding is available for the few that have BOTH the passion for academic research AND truly outstanding ability to contribute.
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)?: 
After completing their undergraduate studies and then PhD studies the majority of graduates are in their late 20's or even their early 30's. Many professionals in other careers have firmly established a defined career path by this age. Thus after completing a PhD early career scientists must very quickly decide within a 2-3 year period whether to continue along the academic track or to switch into an alternate career path. Once this window has passed many will be reluctant to undergo dramatic career changes as this period also coincides with aspirations to start a family with the associated expenses in addition to financial requirememnts of home ownership etc. increasing the reluctance of many to re-train/re-skill or move to entry-level positions on other career paths including a substantial salary decrease (ECF salary at $80k/yr down to est. $50-60k for other positions on other career paths). All this is to say that during the ECF period funding should be provided for internships in other non-academic industries (inc. government) to provide opportunity for young scientists to gain exposure and experience to other potential careers (and also provide potential employers a window into the immense ability of these highly trained individual to contribute). I would propose 4 years of ECF funding to pursue academic science or participate in internships in other sectors, perhaps we some cost sharing with the host institutions for the non-academic internships particularly in years 3-4. The CDFs should be much more limited in number (maybe as low as 15-20% of ECFs) and have a longer duration of 10 years to enable stability for the recipient and provision for high risk projects with performance reviews after 5, 8, 9 years to provide guidance for a relatively seamless transition into the Research Fellowship scheme in the latter third of the CDF funding (or even earlier for rapidly rising stars) with relatively low attrition (under performing recipients should be encouraged to seek new career direction during the review processes). Support should also be afforded to CDF recipients for changing career path, but perhaps in a more limited sense within the sectors most closely related to academic science. My suggestions would allow for most ECF recipients to choose a career path either in academia or elsewhere by their early 30s and the CDF scheme will enable the best and brightest of the ECFs to establish themselves as independent scientists during their 30s to move into the Research Fellowship scheme in their mid 40s with 20years of highly productive research before transitioning into a mentoring role for younger group leaders in their 60s (see response to Question 2 above).
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?: 
Support for strategic priority areas should be achieved through directed funding in the Project Grants scheme. Women who choose to enter the CDF scheme will benefit from a longer duration minimising the effects of career disruption due to parental leave. Men will also benefit in an analogous fashion and be provided equivalent incentives to participate in childcare. Perhaps 1 year of funding for employment of a research assistant during periods of parental leave should be included with the award of CDF funding to all recipients.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
Provision for outstanding applicants from outside the system should be provided at the Research Fellowship level perhaps at a level of 5-10% of total recipients similar to the rate of dropout due to unsatisfactory performance.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
Extending the duration of the fellowships while only allowing a more limited number of scientists to enter the system at the CDF level will enhance certainty for the recipients. I don't think further certainly from employing institutions is required. In addition the funding 'gap' between the funds provided by the NHMRC and the actual salary costs of the reseracher should be addressed.
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 would be a good initiative however the review process during the fellowship period will provide guidance about the likelihood of renewal (or transition from the CDF to Research Fellowship scheme)
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
No necessarily, however proposal would be less important should fellowship duration be extended (as suggested and detailed above) including regular progress review/feedback prior to the end of the funding period.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016