Opportunity knocks: How the overhaul of the NHMRC grants scheme and IP can open new doors to more academics than before

Take home points:
  • Duration of grants are now 5 years (‘Ideas’ grants are up to 5 years)
  • In most cases, a researcher may only apply for two grants
  • Increased flexibility in the grant structure encourages more innovation and creativity in research projects
  • Investigator Grants will support researchers at all career stages, providing salary and research support
  • Ideas Grants will provide opportunities for researchers at all career stages with creative and innovative research ideas
  • The burden on researchers in preparing and reviewing grant applications is to be minimised, allowing them to spend more time on research
  • The playing field is evened out for early to mid career researchers so that they can more easily obtain funding as compared to their more senior colleagues
  • Researchers can begin applying for these grants in 2018, with funding to come into effect in 2019

On Thursday 25 May the Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) CEO, Professor Anne Kelso announced a complete overhaul of the NHMRC’s grant program for Australia’s health and medical researchers.

For many in the academic/research community, this has come as a welcome announcement. As a previous researcher myself, the yearly battle to obtain grants to keep a career (and lab) afloat was an exhausting and anxious process . It appears this overhaul will soon correct some of the dissatisfaction with the current scheme.

For me, the uncertainty of government funding was a significant contributing factor  to why I ‘exited left’ from the bench and pursued a career in patent law, even after being awarded a Peter Doherty Fellowship. The fellowship didn’t persuade me to stay. It just wasn’t a sustainable proposition.

Having been in the world of IP for over 3 years now, I’ve learnt many things. However, the most important lesson would be – ‘knowledge is power’. Whether it is in relation to your own research, competitors, prospective collaborators and/or field of research.

With that said, let’s look a what’s changed in the grants scheme, what hasn’t and how a little bit of knowledge can help you with grant success and staying ahead of ‘the pack’.

What is the new scheme?

Researchers may apply for ‘Investigator’, ‘Synergy’, ‘Ideas’ and/or ‘Strategic/Leverage’ Grants

Investigator

Description:

  • Pitched at individual investigators at all career levels
  • Made up of a salary and research support package

Evaluation:

  • Applicants will be evaluated based on track record: relative to career stage and opportunity
  • Given the evaluation criteria, it is asserted that a researcher will not necessarily obtain more funding due to seniority
  • Unlike the old ‘Project grants’ the researcher is to compile all projects into the one application, thus they are relieved of multiple project grant applications (less writing/free up more time for actual research) and allowed more freedom and flexibility in their research encouraging more innovative and responsive projects

Synergy

Description:

  • Similar to the ‘Program’ grant in the previous structure
  • Pitched at teams (4-10 researchers)
  • Fixed value of $5M/grant, likely ~10 grants per year.

Evaluation:

  • Open to investigators at all career stages, therefore it will be possible for a team of mid career researchers to obtain this type of grant
  • Successful applicants will have a multidisciplinary team
  • Must answer the BIG questions

Ideas

Description:

  • Pitched at researchers at all career levels but will be an excellent opportunity for emerging researchers who don’t yet have a track record that is sufficiently competitive for the ‘Investigator’ Grants (1-10 researchers)
  • Explicitly encourages fresh thinking and innovation

Evaluation:

  • Awarded primarily on scientific excellence, significance and innovation of research, with considerations for feasibility and track record

Strategic/Leverage

Description:

  • Development grants, clinical trials and cohort studies scheme

Evaluation:

  • Awarded to research pitched towards identifying national needs
What does this mean for Australia’s health and medical researchers?

Well, the dust hasn’t settled yet, however, one thing is for sure – from my perspective, as a former early career researcher, the proposed system appears to be a vast improvement on that under which researchers currently operate.

What hasn’t changed is the continued recognition and reward of high quality research in Australia. This involves drive, commitment and the passion from our researchers who must consistently ensure they are conducting new and innovative research in their field.

Understanding the IP playing field can assist a researcher to make more of the grants they can win in this new scheme?

Did you know…

  • 80% of technical developments only ever appear in patents?[1]
  • Patent technical disclosures can assist in guiding research direction?
  • A knowledge of patent activities can save research dollars, reduce IP procurement costs and enable focused, high value patent applications?

When I was a researcher I wasn’t aware of patents until very late in my PhD (when I was nearly scooped by one). In my 8 years of research I didn’t become familiar with IP until I worked alongside the BD and Commercialisation team at the Burnet Institute. It was definitely uncharted territory.

It came as a shock to me that ‘80% of technical developments only ever appear in patents’. When I recite this statistic to other researchers they typically have the same reaction as I did – alarmed!

In research, we set up our daily/weekly email alerts from our favourite journals and/or PubMed, stalk our competitor’s posters/talks at the latest conferences and think we are across it all.

However, there is an enormous wealth of knowledge researchers are potentially missing.

Searching for patents can be a minefield. If you do it by yourself, you can easily be bamboozled by the legal jargon, ridiculously long descriptions (especially in the bio field) and left scratching your head as to ‘what does this really mean?’ Get a professional to complete the search for you, and it could cost you a significant chunk of your monthly ‘consumables’ budget!

With all this in mind, at Watermark we make sure our researcher clients have the best competitive advantage through the accumulation of knowledge, by taking the pain out of patent searching and leaving the researchers to do what they do best – research.

Our patent searching product uses sophisticated algorithms applicable to management of big data sets which can be particularly well adapted to the needs of researchers in the new grants regime.

By providing comprehensive and quick access to patent documents you might otherwise not access, either because you are not actively searching for patent literature or because the search is limited by simple key word searches using web-based search engines such as Google Patents, Watermark can assist researchers to ‘bridge the knowledge gap’.

The benefits of the information we can provide to you

Our search tools provide you insights and specific information. You will be able to:

  • identify competitors or potential collaborators.
  • save time and money by finding out now about technical developments that could cut across your research in the future.
  • maximise the chances of drafting focused, high value patent applications.
  • attract investor interest by being able to make a credible case for the originality of your research based on all available data.
  • bolster grant applications with a knowledge of the patent literature relevant to your research.
More information?

Contact us to understand our array of patent searching products and how they might assist you to deliver more under the forthcoming changes to the NHMRC scheme.

[1] Geert Ash World Patent Information 48 (2017) 16-28

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