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Team composition in an NHMRC Ideas Grant

The NHMRC Ideas Grants are now open – due 5 May, 2021. Read on to discover what composition of teams have been successful.


Last week we looked at how big your ‘idea’ should be, both in budget and length. But whose ‘idea’ should this be? Are the ‘ideas’ mostly awarded to individuals, or to teams? And how big should a team be? Let’s take a look.


How many investigators?

Officially, you can apply as an individual chief investigator (CI), or a team of up 10 CIs. We counted the names in the list of 283 recently awarded 2020 Ideas Grants, and categorised by team size:


Although 17 per cent (48 of 283) were awarded to individual CIs, this tells us that Ideas Grants are overwhelmingly team grants. However, they are usually very small teams of 2 or 3 CIs. Collectively, 67 per cent (189/283) of all grants had 1-3 CIs. And only 10 per cent (27/283) went to large teams (7-10 CIs). This will influence reviewer impressions of what a ‘normal’ Ideas Grant is; typically it’s the idea of a small team.

Keep this in mind when deciding who to add to your application. Your additional CIs should also make sense for your project, of course. If they are not essential to the core project, then you might consider making them an associate investigator (AI) instead. And remember that each person will have their own limits on how many grants they can be CI on; nobody can be CI on more than two applications each year.


Who are the investigators?

We can learn more from the published list of names, since it included CI academic titles (Dr, Professor, Associate Professor). Do the Ideas grants live up to their stated aim then, to fund “researchers at all career stages”? Maybe. A range of academic titles are certainly present at every team size. However, some patterns emerge. Over 60 per cent (178) of the grants had a “Prof” somewhere in the CI list, and nearly 80 per cent (223) had either a Prof or an A/Prof (or both). These senior academics are more likely, the larger the team size:


Note the inverse proportion applies: about 20 per cent of all grants had neither Prof nor A/Prof. You can certainly succeed without more senior team members, but this is the exception rather than the rule.


Who should lead?

Choosing which team member should lead a team grant is an important consideration, and the reviewers are asked to pay particular attention to the leadership capability of your first-named CI. But this clearly does not mean that only senior academics can lead:


Professors are leading 37 per cent of successful Ideas Grants (including sole-CI grants), and A/Profs are leading 23%. The remaining 40 per cent (114/283) are led by Drs - this includes the majority (28/48) of sole-CI grants. This is an encouraging hint that seniority is not the only determinant of success. However, it is clearly still a large influence. Forty per cent led by Drs might even be considered disproportionate, considering Drs make up 48 per cent (447/937) of all named CIs. And note that most (54/86) of the Dr-led team grants still have a Prof or A/Prof somewhere else on the team.


Of course, academic titles may not be the best indicator of career stage, nor achievement. In the next post, we’ll dig further into the profiles of the sole and lead CIs. Stay tuned!