Changing the way we fund research

September 13, 2016

Dr Saraid Billiards of the NHMRC sheds light on funding reforms that are vital to the retention and progression of women in STEM.

funding reform

Attracting and keeping talented women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) fields is not just a matter of equality for the sake of equality. While it is important – young girls and women should have the same opportunities as men – great advances cannot be made without the collective diversity of thinking that both women and men bring to the table.

I feel I have been quite fortunate in my career to date. After my PhD, I left Australia to undertake a postdoc at Harvard with one child – four years later I returned with three.  While my productivity during the postdoc could be argued as lower than average, I was in hindsight insulated from ‘reality’ through the support of an amazing team and a major National Institutes of Health Program Grant.

Returning to Australia, I realised that without real recognition of career disruptions in an individual’s research track record, people like me would be considered ‘uncompetitive’. While this was not the only reason I left research, these hurdles did contribute to identifying my new career path.

While working at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) I had the privilege of managing funding schemes worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support great health and medical researchers. More importantly, I was able to establish the Women in Health Science Committee.

Through the work of this committee we were able to implement a number of strategies that aimed to both acknowledge the difficulties women face in the field of research, and secondly to address issues around the retention and progression of women in the field. This included consideration of career disruptions, part-time opportunities and making institutions who received NHMRC funds take stock of their gender equity policies and practices. While great advances have been made, there is still so much more that needs to be done and it cannot rely solely on the shoulders of funding agencies.


“If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.”


Recently I have joined the Academy of Science to work with the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) team.  SAGE is a national accreditation program that recognises, promotes and rewards excellence in advancing gender equality and diversity in STEMM in the higher education system.

While it is in its early days, I hope that SAGE or a similar accreditation model becomes a permanent feature of the sector and that funding agencies continue to reform practices to encourage women to be recognised for their efforts. We need many talented and innovative brains working in the STEMM fields.

If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.

Dr Saraid Billiards

Director of the Research Grants team at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

Read next: Jacinta Duncan, Director of the Gene Technology Access Centre, says industry-school partnerships are key to a gender balanced STEM workplace.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on funding reforms using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

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One thought on “Open your mind”

  1. Fabulous program – might be a completely socialist structural one that annoys the market fundamentalism of capitalists but nonetheless a vital assistance to stave off Australia’s decline into third world status as we shut down our industries because they are noncompetitive operating as first world businesses! Keep the good work!

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