Sunday, July 20, 2014

Is Australia's NH&MRC grant assessment process corrupted?

In 2013-2014 I led an unsuccessful "Centre of Research Excellence" grant application to Australia's the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC). We proposed to train 15 early career researchers (10 PhDs, 5 post docs). It was my third attempt, but the first time I had led such an application. We were unsuccessful. Nothing surprising there; these grants are notoriously difficult.

However, this grant application (and the previous two) was relevant to climate change, heatwaves and how ecological changes might change infectious diseases epidemiology. Several projects integrated various aspects of these problems. We also had an extensive "research translation" component, involving many community and professional groups. We had advice and support from the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, the Chief Veterinary Officer
of Australia and we had the Department of Defence as an Associate Investigator, including for a study to assess the impact of extreme heat on their workforce. It was the best of the three (group) grant applications I have been closely involved with and many people commented on how much they liked it.

But not the assessors. One, especially, ridiculed it, showing his (or her) own bias and lack of diligence. Reviews are an opaque, anonymous process. People whose names we don't know can and in this case did make factually wrong and even insulting comments about us (our names and CVs are of course shown to them), and there is nothing we can realistically do. We did complain, having little faith in a fair hearing, but the NH&MRC response to our appeal was perfunctory, showing the same bias and a dismissiveness bordering on contempt.
Someone I know who had worked for a while with the NH&MRC commented that while they are not “corrupt” (as I had suggested) that they “bend over backwards to not get the Minister (of Health) offside”. Our current Minister of Health, Peter Dutton, is a former drug squad policeman. I have watched him a bit on the ABC. He seems to have a very simplistic understanding of health, such as that it primarily arises from hospitals, health care workers and technologies such as new drugs and maybe surgical techniques, rather than underlying health determinants, such as the expectation of a fair go in the Lucky Country. He could learn from to Sir Harry Burns, the former chief medical officer of Scotland who states "we need compassion, not judgments about poor people'.

We all recognize science under the Soviet Union was corrupted; McCarthyism in the US influenced many things (not sure if this included science), George Bush junior's regime did, too. I think for a while, under the Bush/Cheney regime, investigations into whether ground water quality was affected by fracking was legally prohibited.

It would be very naive to think that Australian science is entirely free of such taint, though much of it probably operates via self-censorship, nods rather than spoken or written directions.

The standard advice about applying for scientific grants in Australia is that assessments are random and good applicants should persist. But in the case of climate change and health I do not believe this is the case. And I believe it is the national interest to state this. Eventually, those with power in the NH&MRC system will realise the harm their outmoded beliefs are doing.

Of course, you, the average reader, have no idea if I am exaggerating or simply whinging. Some will assume I have no grounds for complaint. I am, however, the sole editor of the book Climate Change and Global Health. I am one of the three Australian contributors to the health chapter of the most recent IPCC report. I am a recipient of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (in 2010). I have given over 70 invited talks at conferences and special lectures overseas. I am approaching retirement. I do not expect to ever get an NH&MRC grant. I do not see how publishing this can do me any good at all, personally, though probably no one of any influence will notice this blog.

But I sincerely feel my perception of bias has validity; it fits with other evidence of disdain for the risk of climate change by the Australian government, and I need to get this off my chest. Keeping quiet about this will do no good either.

Postscripts (added February 5, 2017):

In 2017 an article was published in Nature Climate Change also complaining of the lack of NH&MRC support for this area. See also a good report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In late 2014 I became the first Australian IPCC contributor to be arrested for climate disobedience. I explained some of my reasons here. As a result I can no longer go the US. I am still without a grant. The world is burning, from Chile to Syria. And the leader of the free world is a practitioner of "truthful hyperbole", in other words deliberately exaggerating for pride, profit or power.

Climate Change and Global Health was released as a paperback in mid-2016, with an additional chapter. There is more about it, here.