In this, our second blog in The GrantEd Group’s three-part equity series, we turn our gaze toward the Statements of Expectations and the role it plays in achieving equity for Investigator Grant applicants.
The skew of 2019 and 2020
No, we’re not referring to COVID-19. Even before the first known case of COVID-19 was announced on November 17, 2019, discourse was underway across an Australian subpopulation - Australian researchers.
When NHMRC announced the inaugural outcomes of their Investigator Grants scheme on August 29, 2019, the number of applications submitted across the different levels attracted much attention.
That there was a skew in the distribution of application numbers across Emerging Leader (EL) and Leadership (L) levels was clear. The bias existed in both the EL level to EL1 and the L level to L1 (Fig 1).
NHMRC recognised a pattern of many applicants in the first year of this scheme applying at a lower level than expected based on their research experience, but they had openly stated that they intended to observe two rounds of the scheme before making any major changes to the guidelines.
The bias was not an anomaly of the first year of the scheme, because the same bias was observed the year after, in 2020 (Fig 1).
Efforts to achieve parity and fairness
In recognising the skew, and the diversity of the sector, NHMRC introduced changes to the 2021 guidelines that, amongst other changes, i) identified the expected years post-PhD for each level, and ii) required all applicants to justify their selected level of Investigator Grant.
A notable inclusion in the 2021 guidelines was the statement: “NHMRC expects that applicants will apply at an appropriate Level to help achieve parity and fairness for all Investigator Grant applicants”.
These changes, and particularly the requirement for a justification, appeared to have influenced the level chosen, with an inverse association seen in 2021 between level seniority and the number of applications received by NHMRC (Fig 2). For the first time since the Investigator Grant scheme was announced, the pattern of applications submitted across the EL and L levels more closely represented the spread of active researchers across career levels in Australia.
The year after, in 2022, additional guidance was provided in the Statements of Expectations, including the following paragraph:
It is important that applicants consider the descriptors in the Statements of Expectations (the list of dot points) as well as academic level and years post-PhD. NHMRC recommends that all these elements are considered on balance by applicants and peer reviewers, and a judgement made about which Level is ‘best fit’. The justification should clearly explain why the applicant has applied for the selected Level, particularly where their application Level does not align with the Statements of Expectations, their years post-PhD and/or their academic level. If the applicant justification does not adequately justify the selected Level, this can be taken into account by peer reviewers when scoring the application (i.e. the peer reviewer may score the applicant’s track record, relative to opportunity, lower than they would have if the applicant had applied at the appropriate Level).
Clearly articulated in that addition to the 2022 guidelines is that NHMRC was serious about achieving parity and fairness.
When the outcomes from the 2022 round were announced, the expected pattern of applications submitted across EL and L levels had been sustained (Fig 2).
Apples with apples
Why is the pattern of applications submitted across career levels important?
A bias of Emerging Leadership (EL) applications to EL1 and Leadership (L) applications to L1 had potential implications for comparable assessments between applicants at different career stages.
For Investigator Grants, 70% of the total score is based on the applicant’s track record therefore achievements and impact, amongst other elements, are imperative fodder for this assessment.
NHMRC’s reviewers act under various principles, particularly fairness and transparency, during the assessment process of determining research productivity and professional contribution in the context of career stage. In support of researchers, and of the review process, NHMRC recognises that diverse career pathways exist, and the opportunity to claim Career Disruptions and Relative to Opportunity circumstances are aimed at levelling the playing field during assessment of whether the applicant’s productivity and contribution are commensurate with the opportunities available to them.
We can be assured that NHMRC’s efforts to provide equal opportunity for researchers at all career stages by revising the Statements of Expectations mean that Investigator Grant applicants have greater likelihood of equitable assessment. Comparing apples with apples is imperative (Fig 3).
Fig 3: Image by Tracy Lundgren from Pixabay