A change to judging career disruption

Posted by Adrian Barnett on Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Re-posted from this 2016 AusHSI blog because this is still an issue.

Let’s start with the obvious. Winning funding for health and medical research is soul-crushingly hard. Success rates for major schemes are under 20%, so failure is the norm.

Your application will be judged by a panel of 6 to 12 senior researchers. A key marker of success is your track record, which may simply mean the number and quality of your papers, and your previous research funding (a very circular measure).

Something that can put a hole in your track record is illness, either to yourself or a close family member. This is widely recognised by all funders great and small as something that should be considered.

However, the practical application of adjusting for track record can be horribly variable. I was once on a panel where an applicant had put down a musculoskeletal injury and explained how they had been away from work to recover. The reaction of panel members ranged from, “That’s nothing! You could continue to work with that,” to, “oh no, that’s nasty, you’d be stuck in bed for a long while with that.”

Should researchers, especially non-clinical ones, be judging health information? In my opinion this information would be much better dealt with by an independent panel of doctors, perhaps with a couple of researchers to answer questions on work issues. This independent panel would read the evidence and report back things like, “this is the equivalent of 6 months of full-time work lost in the last 5 years”. The panel judging funding would then just get this information and make their adjustment to the researcher’s track record.

As a corollary, this would give the scientific panel more time to judge the science and not uncomfortably stumble through a medical history. Using one medically qualified panel would also reduce the variability in judgement compared with using multiple panels of mostly non-medically qualified researchers.

Another good reason for using a medical panel is that health information is personal and the Australian research community is small. Current panels of researchers are likely to be people who I’ll see regularly at conferences or could even be interviewing me for a job. Would I want these people to know my medical history, particularly if I’d experienced something embarrassing, traumatic or stigmatising?

Of course the most common career disruption will be caring for children, but that should be something that researchers have experience of, either themselves or vicariously, and should be able to adjust a track record accordingly.

We should leave medicine to the doctors and science to the scientists. There are some annoyingly brilliant people who have mastered both, but they are rarer than successful grant applications.