Brave new ward: praise for NHMRC’s reforms

Ever bigger boom: international education student numbers up again

plus Heads Up: achievers of the working week


Good old days

When the NHMRC first issued grants in 1937 every applicant got one, said Council chair Anne Kelso when announcing new funding programmes yesterday. No, it isn’t a precedent.

Old Allies

Peak university bodies and individual vice chancellors from the UK and Australia have met to discuss post Brexit cooperation. “We see enormous potential to expand the depth and breadth of the bilateral relationship through our respective university sectors,” Belinda Robinson from Universities Australia says.

According to Paul Wellings (ex University of Lancaster VC, now at the University of Wollongong); “as the UK’s relationship with the EU shifts, Australia has a unique opportunity to enhance bilateral relations with the UK and to position itself to participate in any new third or multi-party consortia.”

Universities Australia, UK and Scotland representatives, with nine VCs and Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer met in London on Thursday.

NDIS by degrees

“Get ready for the NDIS jobs boom,” Flinders U advises, spruiking its online degree in disability and developmental education. “Last year’s graduates have obtained 100% employment, and they probably also worked part-time in the sector while studying,” says the university’s Caroline Ellison.

UNE is also on to the market the National Disability Insurance Scheme will create, with graduate certificates and diplomas in NDIS business development, disability management and disability law.


China JV for UniSA

The University of South Australia will establish a joint venture college teaching engineering and IT with Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology in China. Students at the college will be able to take part of their degree in Adelaide with SA students having the option of studying in China.

Art reflecting life

Seen on a t-shirt at ANU, a photo of the VC with the caption, “Schmidt happens”. Seen observing said-shirt, the very same VC.

International education up, again

The good news rolls on in international education, with the government reporting a big first quarter and Education Minister Simon Birmingham predicting more to come. There were 480 000 internationals on student visas in the country, up 15 per cent on Jan-March 2016. As usual China was the major market, sending 30 per cent of students, followed by India with 11 per cent and Malaysia with 5 per cent. ““We are on track to see another record year for Australian international education,” Minister Birmingham said.

Not that 2016 was all that shabby, as new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics demonstrates. Total fee income last year was $10.6bn with higher education picking up $7.6bn. followed by VET, which earned $1.3bn. Goods and services generated another $11.3bn, making a total industry earn of just under $22bn.



NHMRC announces long-awaited grant system

The changes

Medical researchers will have more time to spend on creative and innovative science with a new system of funding announced yesterday by Australian Medical Research Council chair Anne Kelso.

The NHMRC has junked the previous grants systems, replacing it with a new model designed to encourage long-term research, reward bold ideas based on strong science, and go some way to help scientists with family responsibilities lead major projects.

The new model could also have a major impact on productivity, ending the need for multiple applications for the one project. One NHMRC observer suggests the new stripped-down application process could save saving senior researchers anything up to a month a year.

From 2020, the NHMRC will allocate research funds (around $800m a year) in four streams;

Investigator grants: providing “highest-performing researchers”, at all career stages with money for a salary and support (40 per cent of funding)

Synergy grants: $5m each for multi-disciplinary research projects (5 per cent)

Ideas grants: supporting researchers “with bright ideas” (25 per cent)

Strategic and leveraging grants: priority driven research in areas of national need (30 per cent).

To share the wealth, there will be limits on the number of grants a researcher can hold in the Investigator, Synergy and Ideas streams. This acknowledges an enduring concern of young researchers at the difficulty of winning grants. In 2015, the success rate for the old Discovery grant category (51 per cent of funding) was under 15 per cent.

The new scheme also provides an opportunity for lead researchers with family responsibilities to work part-time while their lab-teams push on. However, an advisory committee on women in health science is expected to report to Professor Kelso later this year.

The reaction

National Health and Medical Research Council chair Anne Kelso had all her ducks in a row, and it showed yesterday in the way the medical research lobbies responded to the new grant schemes announcement.

The people with the power knew what was coming and if any do not like it they shut up – upsetting an NHMRC chair is never wise, especially one with the explicit support of the Health Minister, Greg Hunt spoke at the launch.

The Group of Eight welcomed the new model before the event was over, saying its members win 60 per cent of grant funding and it is, “confident that these changes will help us to deliver quality outcomes for the nation.”

The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, commended the vision, which has driven the development of the revised funding program.

Research Australia, “welcomes the reforms announced and notes that there is never ‘a perfect solution’ but that these changes are a positive step in the right direction and address key issues flagged by the sector.”

And the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes was very pleased indeed; “we welcome the NHMRC’s changes and look forward to seeing even better and more creative medical research underway in Australia thanks to increased flexibility in the grant program, allowing researchers more freedom to respond to new and evolving health challenges.”

Universities Australia also approved of the new grant allocation architecture; ““Increasing the time that our best and brightest minds can spend developing cures for disease and conducting vital medical research is a worthy goal,” CEO Belinda Robinson said yesterday. However, she added a note of caution, rare among the enthusiasm. ““In such a substantial revamp, it will be crucial to examine the detail of the changes to ensure there are no unintended consequences and the transition to the new system is as smooth as possible,”

The achievement

Anne Kelso had a very good day yesterday, she deserved it. The new NHMRC funding scheme she announced replaces a grants system that few in the industry liked. But that was all that many of them could agree on. When the NHMRC floated options for its replacement many in the vocal voracious medical research lobby were in thundering agreement that they could not agree on any of them. That Professor Steve Wesselingh and his advisory group, plus NHMRC staff came up with a model that the major lobbies like is an achievement of intellectual engineering. But it is also a triumph of process – public consultations and industry briefings wooed lobby leaders into the funding tent and kept them there.

The new result does not solve two high profile problems – the way women researchers, who match men for grants at the start of their careers, lose ground as family responsibilities take them out of labs and the low, very low, success rate in grant applications. There is talk of ideas from the NHMRC later this year on the first. But as for the second, there will never be enough money to fund all qualified researchers. Professor Kelso should enjoy yesterday’s praise, because she won’t, can’t please everybody.


Heads Up

Achievers this week at work


Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science has won a lifetime achievement award from the UK Kennel Club Charitable Trust for his work on the health and wellbeing of dogs.  He also leads VetCompass, a national database that tracks the health of horses, dogs and cats.

Monash University has awarded honorary doctorates to its former vice chancellor, now principal of Kings College, London Ed Byrne, its former chancellor, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, UWA neuroscientist Lyn Beazley and chair of the Monash based CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, Cheryl Batagol.

Kerri-Lee Krause is leaving Victoria U for La Trobe UniversityProfessor Krause is now DVC and provost at VU, where she is heavily involved in creating the first-year college project. he will become DVC A at LTU in July.

Paul Salzman is appointed professorial fellow at the University of Newcastle, moving from La Trobe UProfessor Salzman’s research interests include early modern literature, especially scholarly editing, women’s writing and cultural history.

Adrian Miller will become PVC Indigenous Leadership at Charles Darwin University in July. He is now academic director of indigenous education and research at Griffith University.

Architect Jane Burry is the new dean of Swinburne U’s School of Design with her appointment another move in the university’s step-up in strategy. Professor Burry moves into the role as Swinburne prepares to expand into teaching architecture.

Glyn Davis has started his exit strategy. The University of Melbourne VC’s term ends in 2018 and this week he told staff that the process to replacement was underway.

Geraldine Mackenzie is returning to the University of Southern Queensland as vice chancellor. She was foundation dean of law there in 2007-08 before moving to Bond University. She is now DVC R at Southern Cross.

 Andre Luiten from the University of Adelaide has won the National Measurement Institute’s Barry Inglis Medal which, “celebrates outstanding achievement in measurement research and/or excellence in practical measurements.”

Steven Freeland is the next dean of law at Western Sydney University, replacing Michael AdamsProfessor Freeland has been a professor of international law at WSU for 15 years. 

The Academy of Science has inducted new fellows. They are:

ANU: Ian Chubb (“Well-deserved acknowledgment from a tireless science and research advocate,” says Universities Australia’s Belinda Robinson)

CSIRO: Anita Hill, Evans Lagudah, John Volkman

Curtin University: Igor Bray

Griffith University: Jennifer Martin

Hudson Institute of Medical Research: Melissa Little, Lois Salamonsen

Monash University: Thomas Davis, Cameron Jones, Nicholas Wormald,

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute: Melissa Little

Swinburne University: Karl Glazebrook,

University of Melbourne: Jane Elith, David Gardner

University of Newcastle: John Patrick

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute: Mark Smyth

University of Adelaide: Jozef Gécz

University of Queensland: Philip Hugenholtz, Tim Ralph

University of Sydney: Dietmar Müller, Branka Vucetic