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Update Indigenous research rules, Australian health council told

NHMRC says it will implement changes following 2023 review

The way Indigenous health research is funded in Australia is likely to change following a national review process.

A report from the National Health and Medical Research Council, based on a 2023 consultation, says the council’s Indigenous Research Excellence Criteria are seen as needing to be “refreshed”.

Indigenous stakeholders and researchers told the NHMRC’s review that although the criteria were still relevant, some terminology was outdated and more community leadership and engagement were needed.

There was a particular call for the inclusion of concepts such as Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous data sovereignty and an Indigenous-centred focus on translation and impact of research.

“Consultation feedback recommended strengthening the language of the criteria to recognise the importance of respectful two-way ‘reciprocal’ partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” the report says.

Engagement and accountability

The report, based on discussions with nearly 200 people as well as written submissions and a webinar, was released on 17 January. The NHMRC has a target of 5 per cent of funded research going to work benefiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Participants wanted research to provide “capacity building” as well as new knowledge. They were concerned that a current rule—that 20 per cent of the research effort or capacity building must relate to Indigenous health in order for work to qualify as Indigenous health research—was confusing and open to “gaming”. 

Indigenous health research was valued by participants, particularly when they had a say. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be engaged from the conception of the projects as equal partners and have an active role in the governance of research,” the report says. Some participants wanted more tangible outcomes and accountability for research aims.

But there was no consensus on alternative approaches, which could include a New Zealand-style requirement that all applications across the NHMRC programme answer a question about relevance to Indigenous health.

On releasing the report, the NHMRC said the feedback would be used to “implement changes to the Indigenous Research Excellence Criteria and associated peer review processes”—but no timeline was given, although the council has previously suggested that any changes would apply from late 2024. The NHMRC said it was working with its Principal Committee Indigenous Caucus on the implementation.