Musings of a NHMRC Project Grant panel ECR observer…

This week I was invited to spend a day as an observer of NHMRC Project Grant review panels. I find it hard to sit still for more than an hour at the best of times, but yesterday I spent the better part of eight hours sitting in the corner of a room. Worse still, I wasn’t allowed to speak!

Here is what I took away from the experience…

  • Do the simple things well. Aims need to link logically. Feasibility needs to be evidenced. You need to have hypotheses. Use power calculations. If you do these things well, you can be certain that you are already ahead of the majority of proposals!
  • Excitement factor is important. A simple and logical project is a start. Next you need to make the panel excited. I noticed that new technologies were viewed favourably, if and only if it was clear that the applicant had relevant expertise, and that the techniques addressed the aims of the grant. Grants where the applicant clearly believed in what they were doing and weren’t just looking for money also stood out so remember to channel that passion and enthusiasm in your application.
  • You don’t need to have a half completed study. I have heard many times that NHMRC only funds projects that are well on the way to completion. This is a myth. Panel members understand that some research is exploratory and such early exploratory research can have huge impact. However, you need to show that you have the expertise to perform the required experiments and that there is some preliminary data to demonstrate that the techniques are feasible and likely to produce a result.
  • Don’t force the reviewers to make assumptions about your proposal. This is absolutely critical. If you don’t explain things clearly, you are requiring busy people to make a decision with incomplete information. At best they will resent the extra effort required to find the information. At worst, they will assume or guess. Panel members are limited in their expertise, especially with novel technologies. Make sure you clearly state how you will do everything. This is especially important for justifying the budget. If you don’t say why you need two research assistants, they might cut one.
  • Different panels have different ‘vibes’. I saw two panels and the difference was striking. Panel members are humans who have personalities. Each panel has a unique dynamic so you need to make sure your application is resistant to different personality contexts. One vocal panel member can alter the average scores of the panel. I saw applications that were presented with great enthusiasm by the principal and secondary spokespersons subsequently “shot down” by one or two other panel members with a particularly strong negative opinion. I also saw initially lukewarm appraisals change to genuine enthusiasm. I think the best way to guard against ‘vibe variation’ (my term) is to have your proposal read by as many people of varying expertise as possible, and be thick skinned with the feedback. You will quickly see that everyone views your project differently. Scientists are often hesitant to show others their ideas because we are scared of being found out as having flawed ideas. If you do, it’s better to find this out sooner than later so you can deepen your understanding and get rid of the flaws.
  • Track record, track record, track record… Track record is a difficult subject for ECRs. We often haven’t had the opportunity to build an international reputation but we are being judged against to best in the country. All applicants detail their top 5 pubs so quality is important. However, sheer numbers of pubs can sway a panel. If you aren’t a new investigator it is probably better to have a senior scientist as CIA with yourself as a lower order CI. Although the panel judges track record based on the whole CI team, it is recognized that CIA is the primary project manager. If that person doesn’t have the track record to show they can manage the project, it can be viewed negatively. There are additional aspects of track record that are discussed. All career interruptions are discussed before anything else and are taken into account in relation to the number of publications you have produced. Build your international reputation by soliciting invited talks when you go overseas. Look for funding through other sources. Has your research been translated to improving something? If so, make sure the panel know this.

So in conclusion, I don’t think it pays to be negative about the NHMRC grant process. Panel members are scientists and genuinely want to be excited about your project. If you have a good idea that is clearly enunciated and based on reasonable pilot data, and a team with all the required expertise, you have a reasonable chance of success because many applications do not.

Scott Kolbe (ECR Network Co-chair)

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3 comments

  1. Hi Scott, thanks for this! Will be useful for many ECR NHMRC applicants. One quick thought about “If you aren’t a new investigator it is probably better to have a senior scientist as CIA with yourself as a lower order CI.” >> I think we shouldn’t ‘give in’ there, because it hurts young researchers and their original ideas in the long run. Rather, we should keep lobbying for better recognition of this issue and policies to address them. I know a few people of the EMCR Forum are active in this regard, and I hope the ECR Network does the same. Having said that, thanks again for sharing your insights.

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  2. Thanks Eva,

    I recognise that CI role and order is an important subject for ECRs, and probably to a more significant degree, MCRs.

    Let me first say thanks to those who have already fought hard to allow ECRs to apply for and successfully obtain grants in the NHMRC system. In other systems such as those in the UK, ECRs are not even permitted to apply. However, we should not rest on our proverbial laurels…

    I want to make two points in response to your post.

    Firstly, there is a problem at the moment of ECRs “ghost writing” grant applications for their supervisors. In my opinion, this is at best unethical, and at worst scientific misconduct. I think all applications should state the precise intellectual contributions each CI has made to the proposal. This is now standard for most journal submissions. If other scientists have made contributions, they could also be stated, even if those individuals are not CIs. This would provide important recognition for ECRs. However, it is important to recognise the difference between developing scientific hypotheses and managing a project and scientific team.

    Secondly, regarding CI order. If a scientist can demonstrate that they have the track record required to manage a project to successful completion, that should be enough to demonstrate feasibility. My comment reflected my observation of panel conversations. For MCRs this can be a real issue. I personally know of MCRs who have been stopped by their supervisors from submitting their own work as CIA. The argument being that it would detract from the track record score. In my opinion, that reflects poor mentoring as it does not build team track record. For ECRs, CIA position on a grant with Prof X and Prof Y and CIB and CIC might be viewed as good mentoring or bad potential project management. I personally would not take that risk given the time and effort of putting together an application. I am not saying we should give in and never push to elevate ourselves in the CI order. However, ECRs need to carefully consider their aspirations balanced by an honest consideration of their experience. Managing a research team is different to managing your own research project so mentoring is really important.

    For ECRs, the news is pretty good though. New investigator status allows ECR grants to be judged more strongly on scientific quality and innovation/significance. If you have never submitted a grant and have a good idea, this is an excellent opportunity. ECRs should consider this for their first grant because the success rate is higher due to a more restricted number of applications. The amount of total NHMRC budget allocated to new investigator grants is a policy lever that could be adjusted. As ECRs, we need to be advocating for this to promote the new ideas of ECRs.

    Scott

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