THOUSANDS of researchers faced a nervous wait for the announcement last week of this year’s crop of successful grants awarded by the NHMRC
The wait was made even more acute than in the past because of declining success rates
with research applications — which have fallen to around 13% this year — and the increasing unpredictability of peer review.
There are a number of problems that have led to this situation.
The first is fiscal. Although a shift to longer 5-year grants was welcome, it has had the unintended consequence of falling foul of the 3-year limitation on forward commitments required by government, so that the available funds are (temporarily) squeezed.
The second problem is demographic. There has been a large increase in the size of the academic community in recent years, driven by the expansion of universities and the medical research sector, which means many more applicants.
The third is related. A larger demographic, almost by definition, means that the average quality of the academic population — and by extension the quality of the peer review system — is regressing to the mean, that is, towards mediocrity.
The fourth is salami slicing. Much of the funding for medical research is doled out in the form of “project” grants
. Project grants inhibit expansive thinking, require a narrow focus, and are subject to nitpicking, which encourages risk-averse short-term proposals in the first place.
The avalanche of grant applications also creates enormous pressure on the system, not only by the unproductive use of investigators’ and reviewers’ time (and churning), but also the attendant problem of securing enough qualified people to undertake the mammoth task of grant review and selection.
This increases the likelihood of less experienced and less intellectually incisive reviewers being involved, and therefore of ad hoc outcomes, compounding the third and fourth problems above.
How do we fix this arthritic system, and how do we identify, encourage and support those researchers who could be capable of changing the world?
First, we should shift the emphasis to funding people, based on the excellence of their track record and the potential of their vision. This can be done by reducing the number of project and multi-researcher program grants, and introducing “personal program grants” (PPGs) of 5‒7 years duration to provide gifted individuals with a stable platform so they can be brave and expansive with their ideas.
The Canadian equivalent of the NHMRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
, has recently committed 45% of its funding to its Foundation Scheme
, providing up to $1.5 million per grant per year for 7 years for established investigators and 5 years for new/early career investigators.
The structure of the peer-review system also needs to be overhauled. The one I favour is that used in the past at the Human Frontier Science Program
. All applications in the basket were considered by a large (> 30) panel of highly accomplished investigators, each of whom had to read and independently rate them (A, B, C or D) before meeting together to consider ranking.
About 10% of applications were rated A by most if not all of the panel, so were funded as excellent, unless someone wanted to challenge the conventional wisdom. No crapshoot there.
An interesting minority were rated as A by half of investigators and D by the other half (terrific or terrible), which was where the really innovative proposals were. What a discussion followed!
It is time to clear the decks, and replace a struggling, out-of-date NHMRC research funding system with a new approach that empowers outstanding researchers and potential researchers, and directs limited future-building resources to the most transformative ends.
Professor John Mattick is the executive director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney.