Last week’s announcement of funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council NHMRC provoked mixed reactions.
Australia’s leading biomedical research funding agency allocated A$190 million for a range of projects, including centres of excellence to find a solution to alcohol-related health problems in Aboriginal populations, and research into stillbirth, a devastatingly sad end to many pregnancies.
Outstanding young researchers, within two years of completing their PhDs, received NHMRC fellowships to train in prestigious laboratories and to bring their new skills back to the Australian community.
The funding decisions follow a highly competitive and intense selection process that took up months of research time; applicants crafted the best application possible to convince panels of scientists that their research deserved funding more than a competitor’s.
However, after each round of funding announcements some researchers are left questioning how the NHMRC chooses which research to fund. Others question whether the very process of how funding applications are assessed gives some types of researchers or research an unfair advantage.
Peer review for grants and fellowships
The process of awarding grants and fellowships is based upon a rigorous and thorough peer review process.
A fellowship or grant review panel scores and ranks applications, with help from external assessors, the top experts in their fields.
To assess the research proposals, the NHMRC has established rigorous scoring criteria to ensure it chooses the best ones.
These criteria rely heavily on:
the feasibility of success, judged by reviewing supporting scientific data
the innovative aspect of a project
the number and the prestige of the scientists’ publications in specialised journals.
The NHMRC then funds the best-ranked applications.
Do some researchers have an unfair advantage?
Sadly, since 2010, the success rate of all funding project applications has steadily declined, which has a considerable impact on the way reviewers evaluate research proposals for funding.
Over the same time, the number of high-quality applications has increased. Applicants now spend months, if not years, of hard work allocating large resources to ensure they have a large volume of preliminary data for the proposal. They must publish in prestigious scientific journals to convince their peers the research is feasible and worth funding.
Sadly, the peer review system now punishes researchers with innovative projects that may be risky, but could be highly successful.
Well established investigators with mature projects produce large amounts of preliminary data for applications. However, younger researchers (who completed their PhD less than 15 years previously) with new research programs or groundbreaking research, struggle to generate similar volumes of data; their teams are smaller and have less funding; they take more risk and this leads to lower success rates in obtaining funding.
Female researchers taking parental leave or sick leave, or who have a child with disabilities, are also adversely affected as they lose years of research time, thus being less competitive than their male peers. The NHMRC takes these disruptions of a researcher’s research output and productivity into account, but they only allocate an extra year of publications to the CV of the researcher. Yet often these types of leave affect a researcher for many years.
Seducing the assessors
Many worthy and high-quality applications are submitted. But to receive funding, the proposal must seduce the independent referees and review panel.
This leaves a major flaw in the system – the chance that randomly allocated assessors may not like the proposal and the project won’t be funded simply because of the influence of one or two key people.
This means that new, groundbreaking projects from young researchers are often overlooked in favour of research that has proved successful in the past, but may no longer yield exciting outcomes. Young and/or female researchers tend to be sifted out as assessors favour “safe” research projects.
The NHMRC knows all this
The NHMRC is aware of the shortcomings of the review process and is conducting a structural review of the entire grant program. Researchers hope the review will lead to better distribution of research funds.
However, many young and highly talented researchers have already left academia or are working overseas.
Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt has openly discussed the importance of ensuring that younger researchers receive research money, as they are often the ones who conduct groundbreaking research. Sadly this is not happening in the current system.
The government established Medical Research Future Funds to support medical research and innovation in Australia to notably address these issues.
However, the NHMRC’s investment in basic medical research is absolutely crucial if we want innovative approaches that address health related problems. The NHMRC deserves better support as part of this government’s innovation agenda.