Kath McPherson: Think outside the box to support risky research

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

This week the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) announced a record nine Explorer Grants worth a combined total of $1.35m.

These grants support research that may seem 'out-there', but which actually has a very good chance of making a revolutionary change to how we manage New Zealanders' health.

The HRC first introduced Explorer Grants in 2013 after we consistently saw highly innovative research applications fail to meet our funding threshold because they were deemed too 'risky' or unconventional. We needed a scheme that was fundamentally different to anything else we had offered before to enable us to support these high-risk - but potentially transformative - research ideas.

What exactly is transformative research? There's no universal consensus, but the HRC uses the USA National Science Board definition, which is: "A range of endeavors which promise extraordinary outcomes, such as: revolutionising entire disciplines; creating entirely new fields; or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives - in other words, those endeavors which have the potential to change the way we address challenges in science, engineering, and innovation."

To attract and fund transformative research ideas, we devised an application and assessment process that was similarly innovative. For starters, applications are short and the assessment process is anonymous. This directs the focus of the assessment to the 'big picture' and removes any potential bias associated with a researcher's reputation - one of the criticisms sometimes levelled at traditional peer review.

Applications are assessed by subpanels within the HRC's Explorer Grant Assessing Committee to see if they meet the criteria of being both transformative and viable. Those researchers whose applications meet the criteria - about 20 per cent of applicants on average - are all equally eligible to receive funding. A random number generator prioritises these applications.

Random selection of applications is something other health research funding bodies have toyed with doing, but I'm unaware of anyone aside from the HRC who has taken the plunge.

We believe that random funding is a fair and transparent way to choose between equally qualified applicants, and it's particularly suited to Explorer Grants where it may not be appropriate to rank or score high-risk applications with less predictable outcomes.

This innovative funding process has attracted international media interest and led to a collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology who are conducting a project titled, "What is the impact of research funding on research productivity?". By using a study design that incorporates the Explorer Grants' random funding allocation, this will be the world's first unbiased study of the impact of research funding.

Transformative research crosses all fields and disciplines. This year our Explorer Grant recipients covered the whole biomedical, clinical, and public health spectrum, and included such diverse topics as the use of smart devices to help manage the health of over 65s so they can stay in their own homes for longer, and the development of new, improved painkillers that don't cause addiction and become less effective over time.
Early indications are that this new funding approach is working, particularly when it comes to eliminating potential researcher bias through anonymity.

Some have accused traditional peer review of having a potential gender bias against women. For example, women are more likely to take time out from research to raise a family and therefore have gaps in their CVs. In our current Explorer Grant round, women made up 37 per cent of applicants yet 44 per cent of those funded, so definitely no gender bias evident there!

The Explorer Grants are also going to researchers from a wider spread of host organisations than is traditionally seen in our annual funding round. This shows that New Zealand has a range of organisations with the brain power and capacity to do this type of cutting-edge research.

With high-risk also comes the potential for high-reward. Initiatives like the Explorer Grants help ensure that New Zealand is not missing out on those bright ideas that could make giant strides towards transforming health care both here and globally.

Professor Kath McPherson is the chief executive of the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

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