Tag Archives: NHMRC

funding reform

Changing the way we fund research

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.

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

Medical Research

Passage of the Medical Research Future Fund Bill

The successful passage of legislation to establish the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Bill 2015 will significantly benefit the health and wellbeing of thousands of Australians. It will also strengthen Australia’s position as a global leader in medical research, says Professor James McCluskey, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at The University of Melbourne.

“The full $20 billion accumulated in the fund will double Australia’s investment in medical research. This will allow more commercial spinoffs to be captured for the benefit of Australians through innovation, leading to economic activity and new, highly-skilled jobs,” says McCluskey.

With an initial contribution of $1 billion from the uncommitted balance of the Health and Hospitals Fund, and $1 billion provided per year until it reaches $20 billion, the MRFF will support basic and applied medical research – and will be the largest of its kind in the world.

To ensure the MRFF meets the needs of the medical research community, amendments to the Bill include directing funding towards transitional research, which attracts added research funding from the commercial sector. Also included are suggestions by the Australian Green Party, such as ensuring that funding for the Medical Research Council will not be shifted to the MRFF.

By providing an alternative source of funding to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the MRFF will make Australia more competitive with other countries that already have multiple funding agencies.

The UK, for example, has the Medical Research Council – the equivalent of the NHMRC – as well as the $40 billion funded Welcome Trust; a charitable foundation that invests in medical research. The USA also has a number of very generous funding sources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Research Foundation.

Researchers from the health, university, industry and independent medical research institute sectors will be able to access MRFF. It may also include interdisciplinary sectors such as medical physics, big data analytics and others contributing to national health and medical outcomes.

“Importantly, MRFF will also include initiatives that are currently not well supported by public research funding schemes,” says McCluskey. “For example, joint research with government or pharma [the pharmaceutical industry] in the development of new drugs and medical devices.”

The exact fields to be targeted will be determined by the Minister for Health, Sussan Ley. Advice will come from an independent board of experts including the CEO of NHMRC and eight experts in medical research and innovation, health policy, commercialisation, experience and knowledge in philanthropy, consumer issues, and translation of research into applications in frontline medical practice. The Minister will announce the members of the board shortly.

The MRFF will be established following Royal Assent of the Bill.

– Carl Williams