Is backing bright people a bright idea?

29 August 2016

Branwen Morgan

Blend Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

Whether it is better to fund researchers or their ideas is an ongoing debate.

Australia’s scientific research community acknowledges it must support more innovative ideas. But, serious questions surround current funding models under which research grants are in short supply and fail to support researchers at each stage of their career.

Merlin Crossley, deputy vice chancellor (education) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, blames the current situation on a lack of planning. “The difficultly at the moment is volatility; there can be a new initiative for five years, but when that lapses it creates a boom-bust cycle.” In 2009 the country’s largest basic science grant provider, the Australian Research Council (ARC), created a five-year fellowship scheme to fund and retain 1000 top scientists from home or abroad. While the scheme mostly funds Australian researchers, when the grants end, researchers have to compete for already-limited research funding. “It is inevitable that project grant success rates decline with additional competition,” says Crossley.

Aidan Byrne, the ARC’s chief executive officer, contends that the fellowships, whose funding was continued in the government’s 2014-15 budget, are a vital scheme that give certainty to mid-career researchers who may otherwise choose to work overseas. “It provides researchers the opportunity to break out of a cycle of uncertain, short term, casual employment arrangements and place high quality researchers into positions where they can make a difference for Australia,” he says.

But without a fellowship, many researchers will apply for project grants, where success rates for applications have been declining since 2010. Grant success rates at Australia’s other major research funding body, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), have been falling for decades, fostering an environment that many suggest supports more conservative projects. To address these issues, the NHMRC is reviewing of its funding structure. Three alternative models have been proposed: two based largely on funding people, as individuals or teams; and one that supports ideas.

Judgment call

Crossley is a strong supporter of funding people rather than ideas — with the exception of early stage researchers who require specific support until they establish an independent track record. “We spend so much time quibbling about what may or may not work, whereas it is the applicant who is best-placed to assess that,” he says. Crossley says committees often agree when judging people, whereas assessing ideas is highly variable. “You can make up your view on a project and say this will never work, but you can’t say a person’s record doesn’t stack up when the evidence is in front of you,” he says.

A common criticism of funding people is that researchers with impressive publication records are rewarded, while others who take career breaks to work in industry, or care for children, are disadvantaged. But, Crossley says assessing an applicant should consider more than their publications: a CV can reveal how driven, effective and well organised a person is.

Andreas Fouras, a mid-career researcher who left academia this year to run the med-tech spin-off company, 4Dx, he founded three years ago, also supports funding people because they are partly assessed by the resources they can access and the skills and capabilities of scientists in their team. Fouras concedes there are transparency issues, such as researchers being gifted authorship - where non-contributing scientists are named on publications — and sometimes grant applications, but believes assessment of people or projects are equally susceptible to this kind of gaming.

Fouras, a mechanical engineer by training, says a disadvantage of funding projects or ideas is that review panels struggle to evaluate projects that draw on multidisciplinary expertise, which can negatively impact an assessment. “There are no panels for research identified as belonging to ‘other’ fields, ” he says.

Ideas first

For Kate Jeffrey, a young Australian scientist, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, the problem with funding people is they usually don't change. "Scientists think in a certain way so if you continue to fund the same people, how is it possible to invite new ideas?” she says. “There will always be recognition of successful individuals through external awards.”

Jeffrey believes the main goal of research funding agencies should be to support innovative ideas independently of a person’s track record. She moved to the USA nine years ago after completing her PhD and believes the USA’s National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award initiative is a scheme that could benefit Australian researchers, particularly early-career researchers whose struggle to secure funding is greatest. Recipients with an innovative idea are paid up to USD 300K annually for up to five years. No preliminary data is required and assessment is based on a ten-page essay that outlines the vision.

The NHMRC has finished consulting on its review, but Fouras thinks discussions about the merits of alternative funding models distract from more pressing problems, such as long term financial security for scientists.

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