Sunday, July 20, 2014

Is Australia's NHMRC grant assessment process corrupted?

In 2013-2014 I led an unsuccessful "Centre of Research Excellence" grant application to Australia's 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 NHMRC 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 NHMRC 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 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 were 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 in the national interest to state this. Eventually, those with power in the NHMRC 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 as special lectures overseas. I am approaching retirement. I do not expect to ever get an NHMRC 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.

Postscript 1 (added February 5, 2017)

In 2017 an article was published in Nature Climate Change also complaining of the lack of NHMRC 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.

Postscript 2 (added January 15, 2019)

One of our 15 research projects was to consider the possible effect  to the Australian blood supply, in conjunction with the Red Cross, from heatstress and "batfall". Understanding this issue remains vital, and ever more urgent. It is prudent to advise animal rescuers and others to avoid contact with stressed and injured bats, but much more than this is needed.

Postscript 3 (added October 12, 2021)

I'm speaking on October 16, 2021 at the 20th anniversary conference of Drs for the Environment (Australia)*
My talk says in part "Heat and humidity may also have a “long tail” of adverse effects, including on chronic diseases – not just MS, but conditions such as organ failure and even dementia. This is plausible because extreme heat and humidity cause excess mortality. What happens to people who are vulnerable, eg from a chronic illness – but who do not die? It is unlikely that all will return to their previous level of function. I’ve tried several times to win research funds to study this question, so far without success. The question is under-explored."

For the record, this hypothesis (conceived and witten by me) was in NHMRC grant applications I submitted in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. None of these attempts were funded.

Drs for the Environment Australia now has over 2,500 members; I recall when there were fewer than ten.


  1. For what it's worth Colin, I'm right behind you. And I agree with the assessment that it's not actually (or yet) corruption, but more self-censorship on the part of the assessors. Keep up your good work, you & your fellow investigators.

    1. Thank you; see also post