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NHMRC cancels 2020 grants for high-performing research teams


Synergy Grants shelved to ease pressure on peer reviewers during coronavirus crisis

Australia’s top medical research funding agency has cancelled the 2020 round of a $50 million grant programme designed to fund teams of chief investigators tackling critical health problems.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has shelved its Synergy Grants programme in response to increased pressure on medical researchers involved in Covid-19 projects.

Many of these researchers have told the federal funding agency that they would not be able to allocate the time required to peer review NHMRC grant applications.

The Synergy Grants scheme was launched in December 2018 to provide $5m over five years to high-performing research teams collaborating on major health problems.

Anne Kelso, the NHMRC’s chief executive, announced the cancellation in a public statement on 30 March.

“This will be very disappointing for many researchers who have worked hard to develop their research plan and build the collaborations underpinning this important scheme,” she said.

The NHMRC has extended application deadlines for four research grant programmes, including Ideas Grants and funding for clinical trials and cohort studies.

Kelso said that one of the main reasons for cancelling the Synergy Grants was increased pressure placed on peer reviewers and NHMRC administrative staff to process and assess applications for the 2020 round of Ideas Grants.

“We won’t be able to do everything and have decided to prioritise completing the Ideas Grant round due to its size and broad impact across the sector,” she said.

“Peer reviewers who had agreed to provide reviews of Synergy Grant applications will be asked to consider instead undertaking review of Ideas Grant applications later in the year. We will consider whether it is possible to run an expanded Synergy Grant round in 2021.”

The Ideas Grants scheme was launched in March 2019 to provide more funding opportunities for early-career and mid-career researchers. The first round of grants was announced in December, with more than $241m allocated to 294 applications. 

Kelso said the NHMRC’s revised plan for 2020 was a response to “uncertain and challenging times” but also subject to “a number of factors, many of which we cannot predict or control”. These include the health and availability of applicants, peer reviewers and NHMRC staff.

“We will be relying even more than usual on strong support from the sector and peer reviewers to make this happen, acknowledging that many of our regular peer reviewers will not be available, given their involvement in the clinical and public health response to the Covid-19 outbreak and additional teaching and caring responsibilities.”