The Fred Flintstone Future

The Australian Research Council announced a fresh round of funding today and there’d be a few researchers having a drink or two. Or more. It’s probably not a barnstorming viking-inspired reboot of Valhalla’s greatest carousing though because many good researchers missed out. As a novice researcher looking on from the sidelines for this round, it’s depressing.

Today’s announcements (with a success rate of about 15% for Future Fellowships) come hot on the heels of the NHMRC announcements with project grant success rate dropping to 16.9% (7% for the newbies). Things look pretty grim for those looking to submit to the NHMRC for the first time next year (me, amongst others).

Still, the new government is saying lots of pretty words about supporting research. So things are looking up, right?

Judgment Day

The new government in Australia didn’t set up a free love party for scientists in the fire pit upon taking office (covered here). Since then there’s been reassuring noises about extending the terms of grants from 3 to 5 years (more on that below) and an exhortation from the PM to forget about the absence of  a Science Minister and “judge us by our performance, not by our titles“.

OK, let’s do that. During the election campaign, announcements were made that peer reviewed grants of “ridiculous” projects would be rejected to potentially save more than $100 million and that $42 million would be cut from NICTA (they only do minor things like help build the bionic eye).

The overall funding of NHMRC project grants dropped in value. Announcements for the ARC Future Fellowships were delayed for so long that researchers who could have otherwise got on with actual research needed to devote hundreds more hours applying for next years’ rounds to avoid unemployment.

There’s the wholehearted support for climate change science. The sort of support you can only demonstrate by disbanding independent authorities reporting and exploring it, denying the decades of research done by climate scientists linking the change in the environment to increased background risk of bush fires, failing to bother modelling your proposed approach to tackle the problem and taking the science so seriously that no ministers are going to tackle the issue in the latest international talks.

Then today the announcement that public service hiring freezes will threaten up to 1400 jobs at the CSIRO (more than 10% of the total planned cuts to the public service). Of course, the CSIRO doesn’t do much, right? Oh, except the stuff listed here:

It's not even a full list. [via @ketanjoshi and @dr_krystal]

It’s not even a full list. [via @ArghJoshi and @dr_krystal]

I think it’s fair to say that if this is the government providing all the support to make science the vehicle of a bright and innovative future then it could best be likened to this super car…

Who is Fred and who is Barney? [via content.time.com]

Who is Fred and who is Barney? [via content.time.com]

… with termites added.

But The Good Stuff Gets Funded…

Well yes, good stuff does get funded. Excellent stuff doesn’t get funded though. In the NHMRC round, 55% of the project grant submissions were felt worthy of funding on peer review, but were awarded zero money.

Need an example? Here’s one excellent bit of work published recently in PLOSOne (wow, Dr Rachel Dunlop) showing how algal toxins might be associated with motor neurone disease. This work is amazing in so many ways. It’s a genuinely new step along the way in decades of work. It is the result of international collaboration. It might show the path to producing treatments for this debilitating disease.

They are struggling to get funding. Where’s the room for funding of blue sky stuff that might lead to amazing innovations when teams like this will be forced to sell cookies to strangers to try and raise funds?

Solutions

Obviously there’d be lots of solutions on offer, right? Well I’m not certain but surely a few responses to ensure funding for big items are needed:

1. Better Government Funding

Announcing 5 year grants instead of 3 year grants doesn’t cut it. In fact, unless it’s backed up with more funding it’s going to shred future research. Adding 5 year terms without significantly enhancing funding levels and particularly programs for early career researchers just means more money will be tied up with people who’ve been doing it for years, while junior researchers are used to write papers (or sew leather elbow patches on Professor’s jackets or something) and eventually spat out by a system with no future (HT @MVEG001 and @whereisdaz for the Profzi link).

So increase the cycle for some grants, but only if you’re going to build a road that early researchers can actually tread.

2. Improve the Current Allocations

A review by the NHMRC is due next year. They are apparently considering a variety of options including permanently open submissions. It’s a watch this space situation but you can only hope they shake things up substantially.

Other suggestions are floating about and bear at least some thinking about. Take, for example the suggestion that it should all be left to a formula. Worth interrogation, although maybe adding modifications to encourage newer researchers and anyone, anywhere who might choose to research somewhere other than a big university would be a way of opening up new avenues.

3. Novel Options

While philanthropy could do with a boost in Australia, more interesting would be investment vehicles that allow direct engagement of the public with research funding (covered here) such as social investment bonds. Where’s the Australian examples of places like this, providing opportunities for innovators to find investors?

4. Some Leadership Please

You know what happens when the Australian car industry feels threatened in a manner similar to an 8 year old receiving a gentle suggestion they might stop breast feeding? They come out swinging.

What happens when research funding is under threat? The head of the NHMRC tells junior researchers they should give up and look elsewhere.

Inspirational.

If research is going to be constantly under threat of being eaten, maybe we should aim to not roll over and take it, but be a little more like this porcupine.

The time has probably come to take the government’s words of support as an oasis teasing thirsty researchers wandering deliriously in the funding desert. As a baby researcher, the only real option is to start looking for a different camel to ride into civilisation.

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6 thoughts on “The Fred Flintstone Future

  1. I’d love to do more field research – my honours project was a vertebrate fauna survey of an island in Moreton Bay, Qld. But instead I’ve ended up with an ‘exciting’ office administration job that has nothing to do with science, but does give me a regular pay check.
    I think we’re doing more than shooting ourselves in both feet if we continue down the path you write about above. Thank you for writing this post.
    Dayna

    • Gee I struggle to be jealous of other people’s projects when I’m setting up to do it in helicopters, but Moreton Bay!

      This post and others like it are driven by the slight despair I feel contemplating my first NHMRC attempt next year in the setting of bugger all track record with a project that sounds like my 6 year old made it up (magic lights for brains with helicopters! Yeah!)

      As someone relatively recent to research, I have a bit of the born again zealot thing happening. So posts like this are partly me casting about to try and make sense of the landscape and what the future holds.

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      • Don’t be jealous – it was one of the small inner islands. Russell Is if you want to look it up. Yes, there was a sandy beach or two, but possibly the most memorable part were the clouds of mosquitoes.
        It wasn’t the surf and sand of North Stradbroke or Moreton Island!! Still a fantastic experience all the same. 12 weeks in gum boots, jeans and lathered in insect repellent, but I caught 2 dunnarts and they are just the cutest little animals out there!

      • Don’t feel too jealous. I was on one of the inner bay islands – Russell, to be precise – and I’ll never forget the swarms of mosquitoes!
        On google’s street map it looks quite developed, and if you switch to satellite it still gives an impression of a larger resident (human) population than what is actually the case.
        The highlight of my 2 x 6 weeks in gumboots, jeans and being slathered in super-strength insect repellent was catching a couple of common dunnarts. They are the most adorable little critters!
        Looking forward to seeing what you find : )

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