Like funding bodies all over the world, the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) (Australia’s peak medical research funding organ) is faced with the task of trying to decide how best to distribute the limited pot of money at its disposal. Funding is broadly divided into two streams; money for people (scholarships and fellowships) and money for projects (project grants, program grants, centres of research excellence). Currently, the NHMRC is trying to work out how to balance spending in these two streams, given steadily increasing demand and competition for both and the absence of comparable growth in the total funds available. They recently conducted a consultation among researchers in Australia to canvas views regarding this (http://consultations.nhmrc.gov.au/files/consultations/drafts/fellowshipsissuespaper150413.pdf). While, in some ways the consultation is an Australian initiative, I think the issues are pretty common and applicable across the globe.
The Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum (EMCR) is a body that represents EMCRs and operates under the umbrella of the Australian Academy of Science, they recently released their response to the NHMRC consultation. I thought it might be of interest to summarise some of the issues raised in the consultation and the EMCR responses. In the interests of brevity (and my time!), I haven’t outlined all the questions in the consultation paper.
By way of context the box below outlines the NHMRC fellowship structure along with the number of funded fellows at each level.
NHMRC research-only Fellowship structure
|Senior Principal Research Fellowship (SPRF) – renewable||99|
|Principal Research Fellowship (PRF) – renewable||97|
|Senior Research Fellowship B (SRFA) – renewable||108|
|Senior Research Fellowship A (SRFA) – renewable||129|
|Career Development Fellowship 2 (CDF2) – once only, 7-12 years after PhD||85|
|Career Development Fellowship 1 (CDF1) – once only, 2-7 years after PhD||171|
|Early Career Researcher Fellowship (ECRF) – once only, <4 years after PhD||600|
Question 1. How should the balance between projects and fellowships be adjusted, given that rates of funded projects are falling?
EMCR recommendation. No reduction in the number of fellowships awarded. It is noted that most EMCRs are not CIs on successful project grants, therefore reduction of fellowships will reduce the chances for EMCRs to achieve independence.
To save money:
Another view. Perhaps there are too many ECRs, relative to CDFs. The argument is that this puts financial pressure on the system but also draws far more junior researchers into the system than can be funded at the more senior levels.
Question 2. To increase turnover, should levels be ‘up-and-out’? This means that SRF and above would no longer be renewable, once the term of a fellowship was completed the researcher would have to apply at the next level above.
EMCR recommendation. Introduce ‘up-and-out’ fellowships to increase the turn-over at senior research fellow levels and reduce pressure on CDF level, at each level only 2 renewals would be possible. This would provide the necessary balance between ensuring movement through the system and reward for consistently-performing researchers. Also, assessment of SRFs should include demonstration of, and plans for mentorship of junior researchers.
Another view. An effect of an ‘up-and-out’ scheme may be to cut off funding from highly performing senior researchers and experienced research talent could be lost to the field. This could also have the effect of making a research career less appealing and also have knock-on impacts for the mentorship of junior researchers.
Question 4. Should duration of ECRFs and CDFs be increased?
EMCR recommendation. Increase duration to improve job security, in particular CDF is a crucial juncture at which a research must establish him/herself as an independent researcher, so 5 years is necessary.
Another view. The obvious implication of this is that it will increase the cost of the fellowship system, this is probably unfeasible without cost-savings elsewhere and/or more money being input.
Question 6. Is there a better way to encourage diversity than those based on number of years post-PhD?
EMCR recommendation. Stricter eligibility criteria to prevent people with many years of experience pre-PhD from applying for lower level fellowships, this requires consideration of research opportunities pre-PhD. Also time (post PhD) spent in industry or public service which does not involve research could be considered in the same way as a career disruption. Broader assessment criteria for CVs beyond just number of publications, to include such experience as: science communication, relevant community engagement, impact of research.
Question 7/8. Should employer institutions be required to provide more certainty? Should NHMRC require institutions to commit to 1 or more years of salary for researchers after the end of fellowships?
EMCR recommendation. Yes, this could take the form of bridging support, project funding for fellowship holders, and requirement of a minimum contract length for all fellowship holders e.g. 5 years. Employers should be expected to commit 1-2 years of funding for researchers exiting a fellowship. Ideally this would be a requirement but this may disadvantage small institutions and discourage them from encouraging fellowship applications, limiting diversity.
Another view. There is a view that NHMRC has no business making demands on employer institutions, such demands would possibly have legal and other implications. There is also a concern that increasing the costs of employing NHMRC funded fellows could make their employment less attractive to some institutions and in some situations.
Clearly there are no easy answers here. Ultimately this is about trying to distribute a finite pot of money in a way that attracts and supports the best researchers, and translates to the best outcomes for the health of Australian and global citizens. What is clear is that the system is under enormous pressure and one way or the other there are likely to be changes in the career landscape ECRs in Australia over the next decade. Kind of an exciting time to be in the business, isn’t it? 😉
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