July 2023: A Call for Strategic Alignment
The biomedical research community in Australia received a significant nod from the federal government this July, with the announcement of a review aimed at enhancing the strategic alignment of funding through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).
Exploring the Possibilities: Three Proposed Models
The government put forth three innovative models for reform:
Model 1, An Independent Yet Unified Approach: The MRFF and the Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) would continue to operate independently, but a novel coordination mechanism would be introduced to promote collaboration and ensure investment and policy cohesion.
Model 2, Consolidated Management: The MRFF’s management would be shifted to the NHMRC, preserving distinct funding streams but bringing them under a single umbrella for governance and administrative processes.
Model 3, An Integrated Funding Framework: A radical merging of the MRFF and MREA into a singular grant program managed by the NHMRC, aimed at boosting flexibility and fostering a more complementary use of resources.
In a direct response to this consultation, NARF’s president, Associate Professor Gina Ravenscroft, was called upon to share the organization’s insights at a high-level roundtable discussion. This event, which was led by the Hon Ged Kearney MP, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, also included key government staffers and representatives from across the medical research sector including consumers. A/Prof Ravenscroft was perhaps the only biomedical scientist present at the Round Table and felt it was a really important opportunity for NARF to represent the voices of its members in the biomedical sector.
Following an internal survey and discussions within the executive committee and calls for feedback from members via email and social media, Associate Professor Ravenscroft articulated NARF’s stance on the proposed models, both at the roundtable and through a detailed written submission (see below).
The Path Forward
As the government contemplates these models, NARF remains at the forefront, advocating for the interests of the biomedical research sector. With thoughtful analysis and proactive engagement, the association is poised to influence how Australia supports vital research now and into the future.
NARF submission to the consultation titled Improving alignment and coordination between the Medical Research Future Fund and Medical Research Endowment Account
- What benefits should be achieved through improving the alignment of the MRFF and MREA?
NARF represents Australian research leaders (Research Fellows) within the biomedical research sector and strongly welcome this consultation. Reform and harmonisation across the MRFF and MREA are long overdue. We are appreciative of the opportunity we had to engage in a roundtable discussion around this consultation and were impressed by the commitment in the room to improve the current arrangements and Minister Ged Kearney’s understanding of the difficulties faced by the sector. NARF Executive and Members feel strongly that improving alignment between these two schemes should:
- Result in robust funding of the entire pipeline of biomedical and health research. Strong investment in discovery biomedical research is critical to future improvements in health outcomes, disease prevention and treatments.
- Reduce grantee and reviewer burden.
- Support a vibrant biomedical research sector in a transparent and equitable manner.
Reduce tension within the sector (for example between fundamental scientists, clinicians, allied health specialists etc.).
- What feature/s of the models will deliver these benefits.
In our opinion Model 1 does not go far enough and the oversight of these two independent schemes appears onerous, inefficient and overly complicated. We are supportive in principle of changes outlined in Models 2 and 3 and the opportunity to reimagine how best to support the biomedical and health research is enticing. Critical to achieving the required benefits, is appropriate oversight of the funding schemes, whether that be via a council, additional committees and/or another advisory structure. Sector-wide representation on these oversight bodies is paramount for the support of the entire sector, including biomedical scientists and early and mid-career researchers. In the past and at present, clinicians and heads of institutes are over-represented on NHMRC Council and AMRAB and thus a significant portion of the sector is not represented. Diversity and inclusion of the entire pipeline and sector will be critical for balanced discussion, confidence in decision making processes and ensuring the benefits of the changes are realised.
- What elements of the existing arrangements for the MRFF and MREA work well and should be retained? Which feature/s of the model will help ensure these elements are preserved?
NARF are committed to advocating for robust, transparent peer review and in our view the only way to achieve this is via panel discussion by reviewers (whether in person or virtually). We strongly suggest that any changes retain the MRFFs current commitment to review by panel discussion and the return to panel discussion for all funding awarded by the MREA also. In no other industry, would awards be made in the order of $1M or more without robust review, discussion and relative consensus. The addition of a timetable of callouts for specific MRFF schemes has been welcomed by the sector and NARF recommends that this be expanded to all MREA funding opportunities.
- Which aspects of the current arrangements could be changed to deliver the most appropriate and effective change and why? Which feature/s of the models will help to deliver this change.
We believe fellowship schemes should be open to all researchers and that clinician-only fellowships under the current MRFF are discriminatory and create unnecessary tension within the sector. NARF advocate for the removal of clinician-only fellowships.
We would welcome changes to governance of the MREA and MRFF such that timeframes for grant outcomes are released well ahead of formal announcement times (i.e. similar to recent changes at ARC where a two-week window is given) and that outcomes no longer be released under embargo. These would be cost-neutral changes but would greatly boost the morale of the sector and allow for greater certainty and planning. There was strong support for these proposed changes at the Roundtable that President Dr Gina Ravenscroft attended.
NARF acknowledge that involvement of consumer and community engagement is critical, however we would like to stress that whichever model is adopted, that the model is sufficiently mature to accommodate the nuances associated with different types of research and how consumer and community engagement is incorporated and scored. The model needs to consider that meaningful engagement with public groups might be more difficult for fundamental discovery science; similarly, it is not necessary for every research project or program to have industry involvement. A mature flexible model that is sensitive to a broad range of research activities that occur across the entire research pipeline is paramount to sector wide success.
There may be opportunities where investigators submitting applications to an NHMRC scheme could request that their grant be also considered for funding by a relevant MRFF initiative (as occurs for Cancer Council and other organisations for which NHMRC perform peer review). This would reduce grantee and reviewer burden. Applicants could include a 1-page summary for example highlighting how the proposed project meets the objectives of the MRFF initiative for which they would like to be considered if unsuccessful in the NHMRC scheme.
- Is there anything you would like to raise that is not otherwise captured by these questions.
We would encourage the DoH, MREA and MRFF to consider strong engagement of biomedical scientists and also EMCRs when the second consultation is conducted around a strategy for supporting biomedical research. A successful strategy will seek to strengthen Australian Discovery Research and also enhance support for the financial and vocational livelihoods of people working in and driving this sector. We would also like to acknowledge the strong and collegial leadership of the MRFF by CEO Dr Masha Somi, and her willingness to engage with the sector and the work she and her team have done to improve transparency around the MRFF scheme in recent years. The calendar of MRFF initiatives has also been incredibly welcomed by the sector as it allows for optimal planning of grant applications and submissions.
It would be remiss of us not to remind the government of the chronic underinvestment in science research over the last decade or more by successive governments and that Australia is falling behind on the world stage. Other countries (USA, UK, EU; https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00897-0, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00496-z) have greatly increased investment in biomedical research post-pandemic to rebuild economies, this has not yet happened in Australia. Given that there is incredibly strong support by Australians for greater investment in biomedical research (83.5% of Australians consider increasing health and medical research funding a top priority, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/breaking-news/support-for-medical-research-rockets-to-decade-high/news-story/9453904935654d8e2065d148da0c94f4Tags: Advocacy