‘Fear’ blocking shift to five-year grants according to McKeon review

‘Fear’ blocking shift to five-year grants according to McKeon review

3rd April, 2013

From article by Andrew Trounsan, The Australian, 3 April 2013

THE McKeon review of medical research is backing five-year grants to replace the present emphasis on three years in a bid to bring more job security to the thousands of contract researchers the sector relies on.

But McKeon panel member and University of Queensland bioscientist Melissa Little has warned a “culture of fear” is blocking the shift to five-year grants, with researchers too focused on an inevitable drop in success rates that would result from longer-term grants.

The McKeon review estimated that a wholesale switch to five-year project grants would cut the present 20 per cent success rate to 13 per cent.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has said it could fall to just 10 per cent. The NHMRC defended the number of three-year grants it awarded, noting researchers were free to apply for five-year grants but few did so. The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes is lobbying for the NHMRC to directly offer more five-year grants.

Professor Little said part of the problem was cultural. She said panels of assessors were “subconsciously” reluctant to approve five-year applications, partly because they were seen as higher risk and partly because of general fears about success rates.

Researchers consequently were too fearful to apply for them because they worried they wouldn’t be approved.

“It is driven by fear,” Professor Little said. “They are opting for three-year grants because they don’t have confidence the selection panels will give them five years.”

The McKeon review has recommended to federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek that five-year grants “be adopted more forcefully”. In addition to providing more job security to researchers, advocates of longer-term grants argue they will encourage more ambitious projects and reduce the administrative burden of peer review.

The NHMRC has said that among those who applied for five-year grants last year, 29 per cent were successful. That was a higher success rate than the 20.4 per cent for three-year grants. But only 4 per cent of the 3270 project applicants were for five-year grants.

“There is a strong perception that five-year project grants are for elite researchers or for exceptional circumstances,” AMMRI president Brendan Crabb said.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute chief executive Doug Hilton said that since 2006 the proportion of funding going on program grants compared with project grants had fallen steadily.

The NHMRC has issued a discussion paper about ways to streamline the grant-making process and cut red tape. It is also looking at mechanisms to simplify the renewal of project grants for a longer term. An options paper is expected mid-year.

“There are definitively some good things we can do,” Professor Anderson told the HES.

A Queensland University of Technology study recently found that researchers spent a combined 550 years of time every year applying for NHMRC grants.

Find the original article from Andrew Trounsan here.