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Current and Emerging Issues for- NHMRC Fellowship Schemes submission

Step 1 - This submission reflects the views of
Organisation Name: 
Baker IDI
Please identify the best term to describe the Organisation: 
Biomedical research institute / organisation
Step 2 - Personal Details
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 ratio of Project Grants to Fellowships is not a relevant driver of change to the Fellowship scheme. What is of importance is that fellows have access to adequate funding to cover direct research costs. The move to longer, larger project grants does not change the amount of money available to fellows, but rather disburses that money more efficiently in larger tranches to support more complex projects. These longer more complex projects will require larger teams and may include several fellows on a single grant (as is currently the case for Programs). It is also important to realise that fellows receive funding from multiple NHMRC and non-NHMRC sources. Indeed fellows are more likely to be part of the larger NHMRC funding schemes including Programs, Centres of Research Excellence and Partnership Grants (though these data are not given in the consultation papers). Fellows are also highly successful at leveraging non-NHMRC funding sources both nationally and internationally. Efficiencies in disbursal of funding could be achieved through packaging of Fellowship salary funding with funding for direct research costs. This could occur for example within the Program scheme and achieve efficiencies for researchers, reviewers and the NHMRC by obviating the need for reviewing the same track record multiple times across different schemes. A cost neutral reallocation of funding to the various NHMRC funding schemes and some other changes to eligibility could be done in such a way that Fellows with established careers are supported through a modified Program Grant system leaving those with developing careers to compete amongst themselves for Project Grants. Recommendation: A comprehensive review of NHMRC funding disbursal which considers linkage of Fellowship funding with funding for direct research costs to achieve efficiencies for researchers, reviewers and the NHMRC.
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 important that new applicants to the Fellowship scheme compete on an equal basis with existing fellows for appointment. This is currently the case and turnover is a feature of the current scheme though data are not provided on the amount of turnover. To mandate turnover on any basis other than excellence would undermine the integrity of the Fellowship scheme. The advocated ‘up or out scheme’ at every level would result in the loss of many high performing scientists and their teams from the system. As recently discussed in Nature (May 7, 2015, A Grand Exit), senior researchers create jobs and their loss actually increases the unemployment rate of younger researchers. On the other hand, stagnation for multiple terms at one fellowship level indicates a lack of upward trajectory which could prevent entry of talented younger scientists. A reasonable compromise would be a maximum of two terms at each level. Recommendation: That a maximum of two terms per Fellowship level be permissible.
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 Career Development and senior Fellowship schemes could certainly be streamlined through amalgamation into a single simplified scheme – 5 year Fellowships with 5 levels: 1. Career Development Fellow 2. Research Fellow 3. Senior Research Fellow 4. Principal Research Fellow 5. Senior Principal Research Fellow To enable an accelerated trajectory for exceptionally talented scientists, success criteria should recognise research impact rather than research activity (eg numbers of publications). This change could foster success independently of seniority since impact can be achieved at any career stage whereas number of publications is a criterion which increases with age. Challenges do of course exist in the evaluation of impact, but appropriately credentialed peer review panels would have the capability of ranking applicants.
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)?: 
As discussed above a simplified system which amalgamates Career Development and Senior Fellowships would be preferable. On this basis, Career Development Fellowships should be in line with Senior Fellowships and be linked to funding for direct research expenses for a duration of 5 years. Early Career Fellowships support scientists immediately post-PhD at a career stage where research direction is usually driven by supervisors. As such this scheme should support salary only with direct research costs being provided by sources won by the supervisor. Extending the duration of Early Career Fellowships to five years would provide a longer period for young scientists to establish their track record prior to applying to the senior Fellowship scheme. A five year duration would also align with the senior Fellowship scheme.
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?: 
Capacity building is an important issue which typically requires a multi-pronged approach. While the responsibility for this is shared by the NHMRC and employing institutions, the NHMRC can play a key driving role. However, rather than lowering the Fellowship excellence bar for specific health or scientific areas or specific types of researchers, this could be driven by targeted mentoring schemes. Such schemes should be led by NHMRC and supported by employing institutions. Historical examples of such schemes include Enabling Grants which have previously driven national growth in clinical research and biobanking. Similar approaches could be made to grow capacity in, for example, bioinformaticians or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. With regard to the paucity of women achieving the highest levels of Fellowship, the new NHMRC gender equity policy will certainly be important in driving organizational policies and initiatives to support the retention and progression of women in health and medical research. The success of this initiative must be monitored closely.
Question 6: Is there a better solution to encouraging diversity in careers than those based on years post-PhD?: 
To encourage diversity in careers, success criteria must recognise research outputs beyond publications with equivalent weighting including commercial and health outputs. As discussed above in the context of accelerated trajectory, recognizing the health and economic impact of scientists as equivalent to publication success could also help to facilitate career diversity. Recommendations: • Excellence should remain the prime criterion for award of Fellowships. • Mentoring schemes should be put in place to achieve the required level of excellence across the full breadth of health questions and disadvantaged groups. • Recognition of research impact could help to stimulate career diversity and to promote accelerated trajectories.
Question 7: Should employing institutions be expected to provide more certainty to their employees than now? : 
Research organizations are bound by employment agreements which do provide fellows with a significant degree of certainty. For example, fellows unsuccessful in attaining renewal would typically be provided with employment for at least one additional year and in many cases would receive a redundancy package.
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? : 
Employing institutions must retain discretion of whom they employ and for how long. A compulsory extra year or more could encourage gaming by some Fellows who are either not performing, engaged in outside activities or are at the end of their careers.
Question 9: Should this be restricted to Early Career and Career Development Fellows?: 
Refer response to Q8

Page reviewed: 28 January, 2016