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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

ID: 
74
Step 2 - Personal Details
First Name: 
Michael
Last Name: 
Landsberg
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?: 
It is pertinent for the NHMRC to consider redressing the imbalance between grant schemes and fellowship schemes. The NHMRC faces difficult challenges in the current funding climate both for the science and the tertiary education sector. The growing "Institutes model" relies very heavily on external funded researchers, senior researchers in particular, but equally these researchers and the scientist they employ are increasingly dependent on research grant funding to simply maintain the lab as core institution funding continues to trend downward throughout the sector. My strongly held belief is that fellowships at the early career level in particular, and to a lesser extent the mid career level, are a poor investment of funds. This encompasses the NHMRC's Training Fellowships and to a lesser extent the Career Development Fellowship schemes. It would be interesting to see statistics on attrition rates of researchers awarded these fellowships, vs those that go on to have a successful independent research career. Based on my own, anecdotal evidence, my suspicion is that they are not commensurate with the stated goals of these schemes - to fund promising your researchers with a high potential for successful research careers. I strongly believe that at the Early Career Stage, the track record of an applicant is very heavily influenced by the lab they have trained in and the impact of the project they take on during their training (i.e. PhD) research. The difference between success or failure in these early schemes very often rests on one or two high impact papers, and in the vast majority of cases, whether a recent PhD graduate happens to achieve the required high impact publication outcome rests largely on a mixture of luck and research environment and in actuality has little to do with the qualities of the applicant themselves. ECFs have typically only conducted research in a single environment, on a single project. Using this as a predictive indicator of the applicant's potential to succeed in a different environment with a different project is fraught with danger. Since the current NHMRC project grant scheme provides for funding of postdoctoral fellows up to PSP5 (the equivalent of a career development fellowship), I see no problem with redirecting ECF and CDF funds to improve research grant success rates. Effectively this would extend the "training" period of PhD graduates and delay decisions on fellowships until graduates have ~10 years of research experience - a much more reasonable time frame to accurately assess personal aptitude for a successful research career in the long term. At this point, the NHMRC should then consider making a stronger commitment to backing the very best researchers, trusting that they no what they are doing and leaving them to get on with their work without the unecessary distration of concerns over ongoing funding (where possible).
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?: 
A further problem I see with current funding schemes is that, for example, the majority of successful applicants in the CDF scheme (tier 2) are at the Assoc. Prof. level. I would argue that someone who is already at the A/Prof level has a developed career and therefore should not be applying for a "career development" fellowship. This is the problem that I think this question seeks to address - how to solve the problem of established researchers stifling the movement of younger researchers into the fellowship scheme by not moving up the levels. Two actions can be taken by the NHMRC to address this. 1) Prohibit applicants from applying for fellowships that are not commensurate with their institutional pay scale. 2) Prohibit applicants from holding the same fellowship/level more than once.
Question 3: Are there too many Fellowship levels? Does this structure impede the career progression of rapidly rising stars in health and medical research?: 
Not if the recommendations provided in Q2 are taken into account. The fellowship scheme should be able to continuously fund the very best researchers in Australia. Sufficient levels are required to ensure this can be done, thought a researcher's career (with the caveat that for the the first 5-10yrs, fellowships should be limited or abolished).
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)?: 
No. I believe these schemes should be abolished or have their funding allocated greatly reduced for the reasons outlined in section 1 above. Extending these schemes only serve to increases the amount of funding potentially wasted on disproportionately high number of successful applicants who ultimately fail to go on and have successful research careers.
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?: 
NHMRC should continue to seek to support people who have been genuinely disadvantaged for reasons of gender, race or indeed other valid reasons. However, supporting women or indigenous persons in general does not adequately address the root cause of the problem. It is acknowledged that women are more likely (but not solely likely) to experience career disruption due to e.g. starting a family, but increasing funding opportunities for women in general will not necessarily help those who need it the most. Some women choose not to have a family and if having a family is a genuine impediment to career progress, then these women would adsorb the preferential funding allocated for women since they gain a significant advantage. Ultimately, this provides no benefit to those with a genuine career disruption. What mechanisms are in place to preferentially support men who have experienced career disruption due to carer responsibilities? What needs to be done on an ongoing basis, is to consider career impediments on a case-by-case basis, and seek to assess past research performance in a genuine context of past opportunity. Every person's circumstances are different, whether this be due to gender, race, ill health or other factors and only by embracing and accepting this fact can adequate strategies for redressing the gender imbalance be implemented.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
They should be expected to, but I acknowledge that both sides of politics are constantly reducing funding allocations to higher education institutions, and this makes it increasingly difficult for institutions to offer the types of long term security that their employees deserve.
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? : 
I note that the ARC has attempted to do this with some of its fellowship schemes, and the success of such a strategy, in my opinion, has been questionable. Many institutions are now struggling under the weight of a surplus of attracted fellows coming off ARC funding, relative to the number of faculty positions available. This is putting further financial pressures on an already stressed sector in a time when the major parties continue to threaten funding cuts to the higher education sector.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
As outlined in Questions 1 and 4 above, I think these schemes should be seriously reconsidered, potentially abolished.

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016