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Who should lead an NHMRC Ideas Grant?

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Over the past few weeks, we have shared our analysis of Ideas Grant budgets previously awarded, and the size of winning teams. We saw that 17 per cent of Ideas Grants have previously been awarded to sole chief investigators, with the remaining composed of a ‘Chief Investigator A’ (CIA) and one or more additional team members. In this analysis, we take a look at the people leading these projects as sole CIA or CIA of their team. Who are these researchers?

How senior are the leaders?

The NHMRC has stated that 20-25 per cent of successful Ideas Grant CIAs were less than 10 years post-PhD (at time of application), and we previously presented data showing that the list of CIAs includes ‘Doctors’ among Professors and Associate Professors. But neither approach tells us much about how long these CIAs have been researchers (or clinician-researchers). Some people have significant experience prior to a PhD, and some may progress quicker or slower to A/Prof or Prof.

One way to tell how long someone has been a researcher is to ask when they first started publishing. We looked up publication histories of the 283 winners of 2020 Ideas Grants, and calculated years since their first publication:

We found the bulk of grants– some 91 per cent (258/283) – went to CIAs who had been publishing for 10 years or more (as at 2020, and not accounting for career disruptions). Only 4 grants (less than 2 per cent) were awarded to CIAs publishing for less than 5 years. Seniority does matter, then. Whilst very ‘early-career’ researchers may struggle as CIA, the large cluster at 10-20 years post first published manuscript indicates ‘mid-career’ researchers may have more luck.

What’s their publication history?

We also found that the successful CIAs have rather impressive publication records. Of course, your publication metrics increase the longer you have published, so we grouped CIAs by years publishing, then compared total publications, citations, and h-index (Scopus, as at Dec 2020):

After removing duplicates (some people won two grants), these plots show (a) mean career publications increasing from 14 to 160 according to career age; (b) mean total citations from 92 to 7,166 and (c) mean h-index from 5.5 to 40.2. However, publication metrics have their limits, and different disciplines publish (and cite) at different rates. Quantity is also not quality. This means there is no ‘magic number’ you need to win. After all, we cannot see the metrics of those who missed out.

When applying to an Ideas Grant, you are not asked for these metrics, and are not even required to list your publications, grants, conferences or any other aspects of CI ‘track record’. Neither are reviewers giving scores for track record. The intent is to fund just the best ideas, regardless of who you are. But high average metrics indicate there may be more of a relationship between the idea and the investigators than the scheme intends.

Who are the early-career CIAs?

Among the 24 CIAs with <10 years’ publication history, 3 were associate professors, and 17 had publication(s) in Nature, Science, Cell, NEJM or The Lancet (14/17 in Nature). Fourteen of the 24 had prior international experience and 19/24 had prior ARC, NHMRC or equivalent funding. Some had both:

I’m going to apply!

Great to hear! Make sure to start early. Read the NHMRC documents. Get yourself and your team registered on Sapphire. Speak to your research office. Discuss your ideas and outlines with your peers and mentors. Complete the ‘minimum data’ fields by the required date. And draft, get feedback, and re-draft. Proposals greatly improve through rounds of feedback. See online for TheGrantEd Guides to writing an NHMRC Ideas Grant.

We are working with Ideas Grant applicants from universities and research institutes all over Australia. Email us at to find out more!'


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