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Nov 13, 2013

The Government’s medical research funding policies fail the test

The Coalition Government has actively promoted its commitment to Australia’s medical research sector but will its policies give Australian researchers the support they need to pursue

The Coalition Government has actively promoted its commitment to Australia’s medical research sector but will its policies give Australian researchers the support they need to pursue life-changing research or instead drive our science and technology sector back into the stone age? Dr Andrew Weatherall puts our current funding system for medical research and the Government’s planned changes under the microscope.

Dr Weatherall writes:

The Australian Research Council just announced a fresh round of funding grants and while a few researchers were celebrating, many missed out. As a novice researcher, looking on from the sidelines for this round, the situation looks a bit depressing.

The announcements (with a success rate of about 15% for Future Fellowships) come hot on the heels of the NHMRC announcements with project grant success rate dropping to 16.9% (7% for the newbies). Things look pretty grim for those looking to submit to the NHMRC for the first time next year.

Still, the new government is saying lots of pretty words about supporting research. So things are looking up, right?

Judgment Day

This Government didn’t set up a free love party for scientists in the fire pit upon taking office. Since then there’s been reassuring noises about extending the terms of grants from 3 to 5 years (more on that below) and an exhortation from the PM to forget about the absence of a Science Minister and “judge us by our performance, not by our titles“.

OK, let’s do that. During the election campaign, announcements were made that peer reviewed grants of “ridiculous” projects would be rejected to potentially save more than $100 million and that $42 million would be cut from National ICT Australia (they only do minor things like help build the bionic eye).

The overall funding of NHMRC project grants dropped. Announcements for ARC Future Fellowships were delayed for so long that researchers already awarded but not announced needed to devote hundreds more hours applying for next year’s rounds for fear of unemployment.

There’s the wholehearted support for climate change science. The sort of support you demonstrate by disbanding independent authorities reporting and exploring it, rubbishing decades of research done by climate scientists linking the change in the environment to increased background risk of bush fires, failing to bother modeling your proposed approach to address the problem and taking the science so seriously that no ministers are going to tackle the issue in the latest international talks.

Then came the announcement that public service hiring freezes will threaten up to 1400 jobs at the CSIRO (more than 10% of the total planned cuts to the public service). Of course, the CSIRO doesn’t do much, right? Only this stuff:





I think it’s fair to say that if this is the government providing all the support to make science the vehicle of a bright and innovative future then it could best be likened to this super car…

… with termites added.

But The Good Stuff Gets Funded…

Well yes, good stuff does get funded. Excellent stuff doesn’t get funded though. 55% of the NHMRC project grant submissions were felt worthy of funding on peer review, but were awarded zero money.

Need an example? How about Dr Rachel Dunlop and team, who recently published work in PLOSOne showing how algal toxins might be associated with motor neurone disease and pointed the way to future treatments for a condition with a take-no-prisoners philosophy. The team may have to stop for lack of funding.

While we’re at it, is it tenable to think there are not more worthy projects in public health?

This area received only 8.5% of total project grant funding. In the context of rapidly growing health system costs, an apparent societal pact to achieve Herculean records in obesity rates and charlatan anti-vaccination prophets creating enclaves where forgotten communicable diseases can frolic, how can that make sense?

That’s before even mentioning the public health impact of climate change. If we can’t find funding in an area with the sort of benefit to cost ratio that makes a Wall Street trader think the water supply is spiked with LSD, we’ve got problems.


Obviously there’d be lots of solutions on offer, right? Well I’m not certain but surely a few responses to ensure funding for big items are needed:

1. Better Government Funding

Announcing 5 year grants instead of 3 year grants doesn’t cut it. Unless it’s backed up with more funding it’s going to shred future research.

Adding 5 year terms without significantly enhancing funding levels and particularly programs for early career researchers just means money will be tied up with people who’ve been doing it for years, while junior researchers are used to write papers (or sew leather elbow patches on Professor’s jackets or something) and eventually spat out.

So increase the cycle duration but only if you’re going to build a road that early researchers can actually tread.

2. Improve the Current Allocations

A review by the NHMRC is due next year. They are apparently considering many options including permanently open submissions. Watch this space but you have to hope they shake things up substantially.

Other suggestions are floating about and bear at least some consideration. Take, for example, the suggestion that it should all be left to a formula. Worth interrogation, although maybe adding modifications to encourage newer researchers and anyone, anywhere who might choose to research somewhere other than a big university would open up new avenues.

3. Novel Options

While philanthropy could do with a boost in Australia, more interesting would be investment vehicles that allow direct public engagement with research funding such as social investment bonds. Where are the Australian examples of places like this, providing opportunities for innovators to find investors?

4. Some Leadership Please

You know what happens when the Australian car industry feels threatened in a manner similar to an 8 year old receiving a gentle suggestion they might stop breast feeding? They come out swinging.

What happens when research funding is under threat? The head of the NHMRC tells junior researchers they should give up and look elsewhere.


If research is going to be constantly under threat of being eaten, maybe we should aim to not roll over and take it, but be a little more like this porcupine.

The time has probably come to take the Government’s words of support as an oasis teasing thirsty researchers wandering deliriously in the funding desert.

As a baby researcher, the only real option is to start looking for a different camel to ride into civilisation.

Another version of this article was first published at a blog for sharing the personal experience of undertaking a PhD as well as other shiny medical distractions that catch the eye.  

 Dr Andrew Weatherall is a prehospital doctor with CareFlight in Sydney and a paediatric anaesthetist at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. In his spare time he is undertaking research in monitoring of prehospital trauma patients as part of a PhD.

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6 thoughts on “The Government’s medical research funding policies fail the test

  1. Andrew Weatherall

    Wow that’s a big imposition and kind of a demonstration of a false economy given the issues with grading quality purely on the journals. You and I both know that restructuring to suit the journals probably doesn’t reflect the best way of satisfying the needs of science.

    My research is effectively in its own little neck of the woods so the challenge (or my perception of the challenge) is to get anyone even vaguely to look beyond issues like track record to the quality of the idea, plan and team.

    The other part of the response I’d like to see is some advocacy from peak groups. Maybe I’ve missed it, but all a bit quiet so far (except maybe Catriona Jackson).

  2. David

    Andrew, the only way labs will survive this period of doom and gloom is to publish in Nature, Cell, Science, PNAS etc. I am currently in a lab that is in the process of re-structuring the way they do research so that these sort of publications are possible. One of these every 2 years will lead to regular NHMRC/ARC funding.

  3. Andrew Weatherall

    Thanks Heiko.

    It would be nice to see the NHMRC review consider a range of options to come up with better solutions. Of course, given the new ARC funding plan suggests ongoing falls in funding, the outlook is challenging to say the least.

    The thing I’m not so clear on is how the research groups out there are planning to address it. I have a sneaking suspicion a bit of blogging is not going to sort the system out, but don’t seem to be seeing much of a coordinated response arguing for better support for research.

  4. Heiko Timmers

    Andrew, your analysis has great merit. It applies to all, NHMRC, ARC and Australian science in general. The ‘system’ fails us scientists in at least five ways. Firstly, we have to work with fewer resources than our output would justify on an international comparison. Secondly, we are forced to spend hours at desks, and not in the lab, to repeatedly document our achievements and ambitions in ever-changing forms and formats for a readership of mainly science administrators and the occasional casual look by a colleague or two, who know us anyway. Thirdly, we are made to wait typically a year or so for a decision that could be made in less than three months without a loss of process, while the research we propose is already being done elsewhere. Fourthly, the large majority of us do this in vain. Finally, the few among us, who are almost hailed as heroes every year by our institutions for doing them proud by beating this beast of a ‘system’, then have to go through even more bureaucracy to spend the typically reduced allocation they may eventually receive. And of course there will be a ‘final report’ to be produced at the end of the grant, that, it is fair to speculate, absolutely no one reads.

    We need a scientific funding revolution! Available funds should be given to discipline panels, including young and not only old peers, that can hand them out directly to researchers that ask and present their case personally in front of the panel. The panel decides itself how to obtain a preselection, if too many researchers show interest. The make-up of the panels changes frequently. Decisions are made on the day and communicated the day after. What counts, are the case that is made in person and the direct interrogation by panel members. Researchers have to make their own way to wherever the panel convenes. This is not unlike how orchestras select their musicians and I have failed to notice that standards have dropped.

    Give the money to the scientists! Let them decide!
    Abandon the ‘system’. Take out the science administrators, ‘shoot the science lawyers’!
    Burn all Final Reports that were ever written!

  5. Andrew Weatherall

    There’s clearly many stories like this David. The experience being lost in the sector is very depressing and you can’t say that it’s just the weaker stuff is being weeded out when 55% of project grants are worth pursuing but can’t be allocated funding.

  6. David

    I have been a NHMRC funded medical researcher since 1992. Thanks to the 16% success rate this year I will be out of a job! My life a career scientist has come to an end!