The winners and losers of the 2019 NHMRC investigator grants

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By Nicola Scott

To say that many Australian scientists are unhappy about the NHMRC grant results is a bit of an understatement. It was never going to be the happiest time, it never is. It’s always disappointing, the vast majority who apply get nothing at all. And to be honest, I wouldn’t blame anyone for staying at home with a cup of tea, under a blanket on the couch and watching a movie to try and make themselves feel better.

This year introduced the new grant system structuring, which I don’t know a huge amount about, after all I’m not at the stage where I am applying for grants quite yet. Nobody quite knew what they were supposed to do or what a successful application would look like. I’ve seen the results on twitter often described as carnage, and some have even described it as a system that is worse than what we previously had.

So, let us breakdown this year’s successful applicants

First let’s look at general success. Of the 1,857 applications 246 received funding, a 13.2% success rate.

Clinicians smashed it. Of those who were successful, 38.6% fall under the basic science research area and the remainder under clinical medicine and science, public health and health services research. This may be due to the “state your work’s impact” segment in the grant applications, where clinicians are able to convey real world impact quickly and easily. For basic science, we tend to focus on the small details of how systems work. While this type of research is incredibly important, it is likely to take longer to have any real impact on treating patients.

Top end researchers won out like always. If you have ever entered a grant to the NHMRC then you know there are different tiers or levels. The bottom levels refer to Emerging Leadership (1 and 2), and the top three levels are Leadership (1, 2, 3), with Leadership 3 being the top-most tier.

While I know little about the restructuring of the grant system, I do know that it was supposed to help early and mid-career researchers out. The playing field was supposed to be evened out – it doesn’t quite appear to have worked out that way. Of the successful applicants 17% were from the top-most tier (L3), however the success rate of those in that tier was 45.7%. The same can’t quite be said for the middle levels with variable success rates. The bottom tier (EL1) received the most amount of grants at 35%, but with a much lower success rate of 13.9%.

It’s somewhat disappointing to see the large discrepancy in success rates between the different levels. Getting a foot in the door is already hard enough but remaining in the house is becoming increasingly difficult. And we need mid-career scientists to be able to hold on long enough to make it to that top tier.

Men win… again. It’s disappointing as a young female scientist to see so few successful women get grants. I look around the floor that I work on and there are only a handful of male Honours, Masters, PhD and Post-Docs around. But when I look at the lab heads almost all of them are male. On my floor alone there are 11 male: 4 female lab heads. Overall, 40% of grants went to women. However, as they climb the proverbial academic ladder fewer and fewer women apply and receive grants. This is likely due to so few women making it to the top tier in the first place.

So, when did women lose out in a field that in the early stages of their career is dominated by women? It’s always been an issue, and universities and institutes are actively recruiting women to now try and even the ratios out. It speaks to a broken system for this to truly happen.

Some people win huge… $2 million plus huge. I’ve not necessarily in the past gone scrolling through the NHMRC grant success pages, but others on my floor are at the end stage of their PhD so need to be considering their next step. Obviously, those who have money are able to hire. I was surprised that when we were scrolling through at the number of people who received seemingly enormous grants.

Of the 246 successful grants, 81 received more than $2 million in funding. Those top 81 grant winners received a combined $27 million more than the remaining 165 applicants combined. It may be my lack of understanding, but $2 million plus is mammoth compared to what many other grants were awarded, and I wonder do they really need all that money. For many groups only a fraction of that amount would be required to maintain good workflow for several years. And while I don’t begrudge people who did win big, I hope that amazing science is conducted with the money.

So, where does this leave us. It pretty well looks like nothing has really changed… yet. The new system may take a couple of years to fully work itself out, and until then we’ll all just have to struggle along. It’s somewhat terrifying to think that I’m soon going to be a player in this world. I have to carefully consider which labs have funding and whether they’ll be able to support a job position. Furthermore, job security is scarce, and I can see why so many skilled people leave science behind, because even if you love something you need to get paid. It’s unfortunate that so many brilliant and highly educated people aren’t reaching potential due to a systematic flaw in our grant structuring.

I’d love to say that this all surprises me, but it really doesn’t. And I think that is the real failing here. I’ve never been the most optimistic person, but I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks the outlook is a little bleak.

Ultimately, I’d like to congratulate everyone who was successful in obtaining a grant. I wish you nothing but the best and I really hope that some fantastic research is conducted. It would be the biggest shame if it wasn’t. And to those who didn’t win, I hope that you can hang on because it would be incredibly sad to lose you to what is essentially the hunger games.

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