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MRFF applications: have you embedded genuine First Nations leadership?

Updated: May 25, 2023

Written by: Sharon Brennan-Olsen

Following on from our previous blog ‘How MRFF applications are assessed: knowing what works well’ which was based on the MRFF ‘Assessing MRFF grants: Insights from assessors’ webinar, in this blog we take a closer look at what assessors determine as genuine leadership by First Nations persons, communities and/or stakeholders in research applications focused on First Nations research.

The questions presented below were identified by the webinar panellists as representing some of the elements considered by assessors when determining if an MRFF application focused on First Nations research has genuine First Nations leadership.


What does strong First Nations leadership mean for this project?

Is it genuinely First Nations-led research? What evidence is there to demonstrate this?

Who is the CIA? Are they a First Nations researcher? If not, has the CIA provided strong justification as to why a non-First Nations person is named as CIA?

The reason for such emphasis on First Nations leadership is because it is critical to improve health and social equity. Genuine leadership enables the research need to be defined by First Nations persons and community, and it is imperative that this begins prior to the research application being developed.

The MRFF Indigenous Health Research Fund Roadmap reads:

“There is a vital need for transformative health and medical research to deliver the knowledge needed to drive impactful policy and service delivery and achieve equity in outcomes. This requires a shift from short-term fragmented research efforts to longer-term collaborative research – driven by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people – that prioritises the most pressing health issues and knowledge gaps. This agenda is purposefully informed by and aligned with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which enshrines the importance of Shared Decision Making, Building the Community Controlled Sector, Improving Mainstream Institutions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data governance, with specific Socio-economic Targets to guide the development and implementation of programs and policies directly related to the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.” Indigenous Health Research Fund Roadmap


Does the team include very strong First Nations leadership? Are the majority (or all) of the CIs on the team First Nations researchers? Based on the track records, experience and combined strengths of the team, is the project is feasible? Can the combined team deliver on the project, without inappropriate burden on the First Nations researchers alone? Are there clear roles for each of the team, particularly where the project involves First Nations community members as lived experience researchers? Has there been previous collaborations between the team members and community?

Building capacity

What capacity building opportunities are embedded in your project? For instance, is there a postdoc role for a First Nations researcher, or other roles, built into grant? How will postdocs, PhD students and other EMCR team members be mentored, and will the mentoring be done by senior First Nations researchers on the project? What are the responsibilities of the postdocs, students, or EMCR researchers, and how closely will they work alongside senior researchers and the CIA? Is there mentoring of representatives from partner organisations planned? How much time will the named CIs and other senior researchers dedicate to mentoring as a genuine capacity building activity? Are the capacity building opportunities all high quality and feasible given the project’s scope?

Have the capacity building activities been allocated adequate timing in the project, and are there specific milestones? Are the mentoring and other capacity building activities feasible given the team’s skillset and their other commitments and responsibilities? Are the mentoring roles allocated to the named CIs in a way that they can feasibly deliver on them with their FTE load identified in the project?


Does the leadership of the project include strong involvement of First Nations community-controlled organisations, peak bodies and/or stakeholders? Which ones are indicated as being involved, and in what capacity? Are they involved as a partner organisation, as a collaborator, consultancy, and/or do you have First Nations persons with lived experience participating as researchers? Were they involved during the conceptualisation and project design stages? Are relationships with the First Nations organisations long-standing, and, to date, what have they collaboratively undertaken? In what way have the partners committed to the project? What will they do?

First Nations community involvement

Does the application clearly demonstrate First Nations involvement in conceptualising the research focus, prioritising the issues and informing the research questions, and co-designing the project? Is there meaningful involvement of First Nations community members that is broader than just membership of an advisory committee? Has remuneration for First Nations community been costed in the budget? Do your methods align with best practice principles in First Nations research (i.e. the AIATSIS Code of Ethics)?


Is there strong alignment of the team’s capacity and capability with the methods section? Have the named CIs allocated enough FTE to work on this project and upskill and mentor the EMCR researchers?


Has the research been identified as a need and priority of First Nations community groups and stakeholders? How was that need determined? What is the evidence? How do the intended outcomes and benefits for First Nations persons and community, as indicated in the Measures of Success statement, tie back to the project impact?


Does the involvement of First Nations community and First Nations stakeholders include providing governance over the research? How will this be achieved, and will it be ongoing?

GrantEd’s take home message

From the webinar discussion, MRFF assessors are looking for i) genuine First Nations leadership, ii) early engagement with First Nations persons and community to define need and co-conceptualise the research, iii) high quality capacity building opportunities, and iv) applications that exemplify principles of ethical research with First Nations persons and communities, including respect, trust, self-determination and commitment. Assessors consider the combined team when determining the feasibility of the proposal, so although a methodology section for a First Nations focused proposal may be richly detailed and presents a flawless, well justified research plan, if First Nations leadership and meaningful engagement across the research life is not clear, this is likely to impact negatively on the score. We encourage you to consider these summarised points from the webinar panel in conjunction with the scheme-specific guidelines.

For further reading about ethical First Nations research principles, please see:

And finally, if you’re interested in watching the MRFF assessment webinar, it can be found here Videos and webinars | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.

Good luck with your MRFF funding applications!


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