The evolution of an NHMRC Ideas Grant

The 2021 NHMRC Ideas Grants round has just opened. Are you considering applying? Then read this!

  • · How big should your ‘idea’ be?

  • · How many ‘Chief Investigators’?

  • · Who should lead it?

We will answer these questions – and more – by studying the past two rounds of awarded Ideas Grants.

Every year, The GrantEd Group supports many applicants across Australia, and these are among the most common questions everyone faces right at the start of an application.

With around $250 million awarded through 300 grants each year, the Ideas Grants are now the NHMRC’s second largest funding scheme. First launched in 2019 as part of the major reform, Ideas Grants are now in their third annual round. They are intended to complement the ‘Investigator’, ‘Synergy’ and ‘Clinical Trials/Cohort Studies’ schemes, by funding the nation’s most ‘innovative and creative research … from discovery to implementation … at all career stages’. Which leaves the door wide open for what you should propose!

First – how big should the idea be?

How much work should be involved? Officially, you can propose projects of seemingly unlimited budgets, to support between one and 10 chief investigators, working anywhere between one and five years. In reality, there are clear patterns within that wide scope.

We retrieved the published details of all grants awarded and used grant dates to determine duration each was awarded for. Here’s the reality:

It would be a lot of effort to go through this application for a grant of just one year, or even two, but it is clear that small grants are possible, if they suit the project. As are larger grants of four or five years.

Although there has been a perception that these are de facto three-year grants, this is clearly not the only possibility. In 2019, only 56% (164/294) of funded grants had durations of three years, and this is even lower in 2020, now only 51% (144 of 283). This may represent the beginnings of a shift in expectations. When selecting your project length then, you can worry less about what a ‘typical’ Ideas Grant is and focus instead on a length that is most realistic and appropriate for your project design.

How expensive?

Once you have chosen your project length to fit your design, how much funding should you ask for? Within some technical restrictions (such as maximum $80,000 for equipment, or fixed rates for personnel), there is no clear ceiling on how high your budget should be. There has accordingly been some variation in amounts awarded. Here’s the budget distribution from last year, broken down by grant duration:

Unsurprisingly, longer projects cost more. At each duration, there have been one or two very expensive grants, but the majority cluster around lower amounts. The box-and-whisker plot shows quartiles of distribution. Here’s the median funding awarded, for each duration:

Are we starting to see higher amounts awarded? In every duration, the 2020 grants were 5 to 40 % higher than those awarded in 2019. The same trend holds on mean amounts. The logical next step is to ask how much was awarded per year of grant?

Putting aside the one very short grant, which may be an outlier, we have arrived at a simple rule of thumb: about $250k per year. Bit less for 2-year Ideas; bit more for bigger Ideas.

So much for Idea size. Now, who wins? In our next posts, we will look at winning teams and lead investigators. Follow us to learn more!