Tag Archives: grants

Two minds about funding heart research

Recently I had a knock on the door from an enthusiastic young man talking about heart research. Given that has been the focus of my research for the last 18 months or so I was delighted that someone was out there trying to raise money for research. However, my delight was, in retrospect,was tempered somewhat when I realised that the man was not representing a New Zealand based research group.

The man was collecting donations for the Heart Research Institute, an independent research group based in Sydney Australia. This is a substantial and credible organisation. I would be happy to collaborate with any of their team leaders. Looking at their website I noted one (of 12) research groups mentioned New Zealand collaborators.   I’ve written to ask if they have more. The HRI have a very professional New Zealand website which gives information on heart disease statistics in New Zealand. They indicate that they support scholarships and fellowships for New Zealanders to work with their Australian counterparts. However, I am in two minds about this group door knocking in New Zealand – one mind thinks “great” they are keen to raise money for heart research, what a good cause. The other thinks “hmmm,” don’t we have some wonderful New Zealand based heart research groups and charities – why another (not New Zealand based) one in a crowded field seeking money from a limited pool of discretionary spending?

Perhaps, to help the people of Canterbury and wherever else funds are being solicited from to make up their own minds, I can remind people of four great charitable organisations supporting heart research in New Zealand.

Heart Foundation of New Zealand: This is a wonderful organisation with a long history of supporting research in New Zealand as well as supporting individuals within New Zealand. They are the group behind the “Heart Foundation Tick” on food labels. Their website is really worth checking out… I just learnt about the “Two Ticks” now appearing on some labels. For the likes of a researcher like me they provide small, but very important, grants that enable important questions to be answered. Indeed, I have just had a paper published which a Heart Foundation grant made possible. In that paper we show that one of the latest guidelines on how to use a blood marker (used in most New Zealand hospitals) to rule out someone having a heart attack are flawed. I note, that they have in large letters on their web site that they do not do door to door fund raising.

Christchurch Heart Institute: CHI is a research group and charitable organisation within my own department, the Department of Medicine, at the University of Otago Christchurch campus (known to most Cantabs as “the med school”). Headed by Professor Mark Richards it is a world renowned group. I have the privilege (a little daunting given just how incredibly intelligent these people are) to collaborate with CHI on a number of clinical projects. The publication I mentioned was one of them. Another project, just kicking off, is investigating markers of acute kidney injury within people who have acute heart failure. They have recently expanded into social media – so you can follow them on facebook.

Canterbury Medical Research Foundation:  CMRF is a wonderful organisation – they are one of the three major sponsors of my own fellowship. My own prejudice aside, CMRF have been supporting research in Canterbury for over 50 years. One aspect of the CMRF that really impresses me is that they understand the need to support researchers and just “let them get on with it.” Cantabrians may recognise their recent campaign that has included some impressive billboards. One important plank of CMRFs work in Canterbury is their subsidiary the New Zealand Brain Institute which does important research into stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Emergency Care Foundation: The ECF supports research in the Emergency Department of Christchurch hospital including research into the rapid rule-out of heart attacks for patients presenting with chest pain.  I’m fortunate enough to be involved in that research and the role out of new diagnostic pathways to all emergency department in the country.  ECF also support research into the health affects of the Christchurch earthquakes.  ECF are another of my major sponsors.

Some logos of the great local charitable organisations supporting heart research

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HRC success in Christchurch

The Health Research Council announced Programme and Project grant recipients.  Here’s the list from the Christchurch campus of the University of Otago in which I get a brief mention :).  If others have abstracts of successful grants they’d like posted on this blog, then please let me know.

*****Update: It’s come to my attention that this announcement sent to Uni Otago staff left off the investigator lists investigators who were not current University staff.  I’ve added a few I know about below, but here may be others left out of the list, sorry.  ****

Monday, 9 June 2014.

University of Otago, Christchurch researchers have been awarded more than $8 million of Health Research Council 2014 funding. The results were announced by Minister Steven Joyce at 11.30am today.

The funded projects are:

  • HRC Programme Grant to Professor Mark Richards: Heart Failure: markers and management ($4,980,858).
  • HRC Project Grant to Professor David Murdoch: Legionnaires’ disease in New Zealand: improving diagnostics and treatment ($999,467).
  • HRC Project Grant to Dr Ben Hudson: A randomised controlled trial of nortriptyline in knee osteoarthritis ($1,190,921).
  • HRC Project Grant to Professor Tim Anderson Genetics, brain imaging, and cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease ($1,178,804).
  • Emerging Researcher First Grant to Dr Tracy Melzer: Imaging markers of imminent cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease ($149,943).

A summary of each project follows:

HRC Programme Grant to Professor Mark Richards ($4,980,858)

Heart Failure: markers and management

Heart failure (HF) will affect 20% of people now aged 40 years and confers high rates of early readmission and death.  Professor Richards and his team will implement an integrated programme addressing unmet needs in HF including: (1) The IMPERATIVE-HF controlled trial of intensified immediate post-discharge management using special blood tests to individually grade risk and guide intervention with rapid adjustments to treatment to improve outcomes. (2) Testing of candidate kidney damage markers for early warning of this frequent and dangerous complication of HF. (3) Establishing correct sampling times for novel markers for best prediction of early and long term outcomes in HF. (4) Testing our newly discovered markers for early warning of pneumonia complicating HF. (5) Clarification of diagnoses and testing management plans for patients in the Emergency Department with breathlessness or chest pain who do not have clear-cut HF or heart attacks but who nevertheless have elevated blood biomarkers and a poor outlook.

Other investigators are: Prof Vicky Cameron, Prof Richard Troughton, A/Prof Chris Pemberton, A/Prof Miriam Rademaker, A/Prof Chris Frampton, Prof Chris Charles, Dr Leigh Ellmers, Medicine, A/Prof John Pickering, Dr Anna Pilbrow (all University of Otago). Professor Zoltan Endre (University of New South Wales), Dr Martin Than (ED, Christchurch District Health Board), Prof Robert Doughty (University of Auckland), Dr James Pemberton (Cardiology, Auckland District Health Board)

HRC Project Grant to Professor David Murdoch ($999,467)

Legionnaires’ disease in New Zealand: improving diagnostics and treatment

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe type of pneumonia that is under-diagnosed in New Zealand. Special tests are required to make a diagnosis of legionnaires’ disease, but there are no clear guidelines about which patients to test. An enhanced testing system for legionnaires’ disease was developed in Canterbury and has been used there since 2010. The system involves targeted use of the current best test for legionnaires’ disease: PCR(polymerase chain reaction), which detects bacterial DNA. This approach has uncovered many cases of legionnaires’ disease that would have otherwise gone undetected. This study will roll out this same testing strategy across New Zealand for one year in order to measure the national burden of legionnaires’ disease, toimprove patient treatment, to identify cost-effective ways to test for legionnaires’ disease in the future, and to create better guidelines for the treatment of pneumonia.

Other investigators: A/Prof Patricia Priest, Prof Stephen Chambers, Dr Ian Sheerin.

HRC Project Grant to Dr Ben Hudson ($1,190,921)

A randomised controlled trial of nortriptyline in knee osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a very common and painful condition.  Medicines currently available for treating OA pain are not ideal: they are either inadequately effective or cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects. Recent research has shown how the brain processes pain in OA and this has opened up the possibility of using different types of medicines for OA pain.  Nortriptyline (an antidepressant) has been used to treat persistent pain in other conditions, and other antidepressants may reduce pain in knee OA.  It is not known whether nortriptyline is useful in this condition.  We plan to test this effect by randomly allocating participants to treatment with nortriptyline or placebo and to measure changes in their pain before and after a period on the medication.  We hope that this will tell us whether nortriptyline will be helpful.  If it is, then we believe that many people may benefit from taking this medicine.

Other investigators: Prof Les Toop, Prof Lisa Stamp, Dr Jonathan Williman, Prof Gary Hooper, A/Prof Dee Mangin, Ms Bronwyn Thompson

HRC Project Grant to Professor Tim Anderson ($1,178,804)

Genetics, brain imaging, and cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease

Many people with Parkinson’s are at risk of dementia but scientists and clinicians have been unable to predict when that will occur. Professor Tim Anderson and his team will do advanced brain scans (MRI and PET) gene testing and clinical evaluations in 85 Parkinson’s patients who have mild cognitive impairments, who are known to be at higher risk, and then determine whether they progress to dementia over the subsequent three years. By identifying characteristics present in the scans and genetic tests of those who develop dementia, compared to those who do not, Professor Anderson and his team can advance understanding of this important issue and establish a useful and reliable tool for researchers and clinicians. It is critical to do this so that preventative treatments to protect against dementia can be targeted at the most appropriate patients when that treatment becomes available and also to select the right ‘at risk’ Parkinson’s patients for trials of new treatments.

Other investigators are: Prof Martin Kennedy, Dr Tracy Melzer, Dr John Pearson.  Prof. John Dalrymple-Alford (University of Canterbury), Dr Ross Keenan (CDHB, Christchurch Radiology Group), Prof. David Miller (University College London)

HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant to Dr Tracy Melzer ($149,943)

Imaging markers of imminent cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease.

Most Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients eventually develop dementia, which is the most burdensome aspect of this progressively worsening condition.  Mild cognitive impairments often indicate imminent dementia, but the two to 20 year time course poses a major problem for medical interventions, as brain changes associated with dementia in PD are still poorly understood.  Recent evidence suggests that neurodegenerative diseases such as PD progress along discrete brain networks.  One important network, known as the ‘default mode network’ appears particularly susceptible to neurodegeneration. Dr Melzer and his team will examine this network to determine if its disruption can specify which PD patients are vulnerable to progression to dementia within the next two years. A sophisticated but readily available brain imaging technique, called resting state functional imaging, will be used. These measures will assist in the selection of the most suitable patients for new treatments that may delay or prevent subsequent dementia in this vulnerable population.

The other investigator is: Prof Tim Anderson. Prof. John Dalrymple-Alford (University of Canterbury), Dr Ross Keenan (CDHB, Christchurch Radiology Group), Dr Daniel Myell (NZ Brain Research Institute)

 

What the HRC should have done

The system is broke.  It is no better than a lottery.  The Health Research Council tacitly acknowledged this last year when they introduced a lottery to their grant funding round.  The lottery was for three grants of $150,000 each.  These “Explorer Grants” are available again this year.  The process went thus: HRC announced the grant and requested proposals;  proposals were required to meet simple requirements of transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact;  proposals were examined by committees of senior scientists;  all that met the criteria were put in a hat and three winners were drawn out.

116 grants were received, 3 were awarded (2.6%!!!). There were several committees of 4-5 senior scientists. Each committee assessed up to 30 grants.  I’m told it was a couple of days work for each scientist. I’m also told that, not surprisingly given we’ve a damned good science workforce, most proposals met the criteria. WHAT A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME AND RESOURCES.

Here is what should have happened:  All proposals should have gone immediately into the hat.  Three should have been drawn out.  Each of these three should have been assessed by a couple of scientists to make sure they meet the criteria.  If not, another should be drawn and assessed.  This would take about a 10th of the time and would enable results to be announced months earlier.

Given that the HRC Project grants have only about a 7% success rate and that the experience of reviewers is that the vast majority of applications are worthy of funding  I think a similar process of randomly drawing and then reviewing would be much more efficient and no less fair.  Indeed, here is the basis of a randomised controlled trial which I may well put as a project proposal to the HRC.

Null Hypothesis:  Projects assessed after random selection perform no differently to those assessed using the current methodology.

Method:  Randomly divide all incoming project applications into two groups. Group 1: Current assessment methodology.  Group 2: Random assessment methodology.  Group 1: assess as per normal aiming to assign half the allocated budget.  Group 2: Randomly draw 7% of the Group 2 applicants;  assess;  draw more to cover any which fail to meet fundability (only) criteria;  fund all which meet this criteria in order they were drawn until half the allocated budget is used.

Outcome measures:  I need to do a power calculation and think about the most appropriate measure, but this could be either a blinded assessment of final reports or a metric like difference in numbers of publications.

Let’s hope that lessons are learnt when it comes to the processes used to allocate National Science Challenges funds.

Don’t call this scientist soft!

I’m a soft money scientist, not because I’m cuddly (I am), or because I’m an easy mark for a fiver (I’m not), but because my job and my scientific output depend on my ability/luck at raising money.  As my 100th blog post I thought it time to describe this precarious state of affairs, especially as your taxes may be contributing to it.  Also, when the penny dropped with some friends of mine, so did their jaws.

Before I get into the description, let me say this: It is the best of jobs, it is the worst of jobs.  It is a privilege to spend most of my time solving the puzzle that are the diseases I study with the hope of making a difference to patients in the future.  It is appallingly frustrating that I cannot conduct long-term research or even rely on having an income next year because of the continued axe floating a few feet above my cranium.

In New Zealand, at least, scientists come in many flavours.  There is the industrial scientist earning a salary in a company somewhere who will sink or swim along with the fortunes of the company, there are the scientists in Callaghan Innovation, Ag Research, and other government entities that interface between academia, the commercial world, and the provision of scientific services.  I understand they have a variety of funding sources – in recent years the government side of it has moved from project grant based towards more bulk funding.  Given what is happening with Ag Research, I don’t know if that means more secured tenure for these scientists or not … I’ll let them describe their predicament.  Then, in academic institutions, there are the lecturer scientists who both teach and research.  Traditionally the spend their time 40% teaching, 40% researching, 20% in administration, but there are many variations on the theme. Normally, these people have a more-or-less permanent position (at least as long as students keep coming to do the courses they teach).  To get funding for their research (though not their salary unless they want to “buy out” some teaching time) they need to apply for grants.  In my institution, University of Otago Christchurch, most of the teachers are also active senior medical staff with joint appointments with the CDHB.

Then there are the soft-money scientists.  Most PhD students go on to do a 1 or 2 year post-doc (or two) which is funded by a grant that has been obtained by a senior researcher somewhere.  This is “soft-money” – meaning of limited duration and usually directed at a particularly project.  Most post-docs move into lecturing or leave academia.  A few may pick up additional fellowships or join a group which has the funds to employ them.  To continue in their chosen career they must contribute to the gathering of resources (money money money).  They have no training in this, but after the first few grant rejections begin to learn.  They realise they are competing against scientists who are lecturers or in other entities who already have their salaries covered.  However, the first thing they must put on their grant is their own salary + overheads (113% in my institution).  This, of course, limits what they may be able to say they will do in a grant application as they are not able to write into the grant all the expenses they’d like.  This puts them at a competitive disadvantage.  Another source of income for some groups may be commercial.  This may be the testing in their labs of some equipment  or a new product, or some forensic work etc. Not everyone has that option.

My own sojourn has been a little off the beaten path as six years ago at the age of 40 mumble I returned to the scientific fold after 15 years out of it.  My return was funded for two years initially by a Health Research Council Grant (HRC; your tax dollars) and by a private company who had obtained some government funding for development (Syft).  Since then I’ve had grants from the Australia New Zealand Society of Nephrologists (twice 🙂  ), Lottery Health, University of Otago Research Grant, and the Marsden Foundation.  My current funding till the end of the year is 41% from a Marsden Foundation grant and 59% from the profits of the last project (a commercial one) our lab-based group ran (alas … another long story, there is now no lab-based group).  Having multiple sources of income is not at all unusual for the more senior research scientists.  Indeed, the current funding levels of even the largest of the grants (HRC and Marsden) are not sufficient to fund a full time senior scientist along with all the associated costs of running a larger project (which these are intended for). The application success rates (7%) make it unlikely that anyone, other than in large established groups with broad funding basis whose success breeds grant success (rightly so!), will be able to sustain a long-term career based on grant funding alone.

One source of funding that I’ve not talked about is philanthropy.  This plays a vital, though small, role in New Zealand science.  Most are familiar with the likes of the Heart Foundation or the Cancer Society which take donations and use some of them for research projects.  An intriguing, though seldom visited, new source of funding is so called “crowd sourcing” where someone pitches a project online to raise money – Dr Siouxsie Wiles successfully raised US$4,480 last year doing just that. This, of course, will not sustain a scientist like myself.  What will?  What do you think is reasonable to spend on science and scientists?  How about the same as we spend per classroom?  According to a Principal acquaintance it costs about $17K per pupil p.a. to run a school.  The average class size is about 23 pupils making it a tad under $400K p.a per classroom.  I think what I do has similar value to educating a class full of kids, but right now I’d settle for half the amount.  Governments, of course, must make choices and impose certain limits on spending.  The current NZ government’s moves to increase spend in research are welcome, but this will at best make a small dent in the grant funding success rate.  Individuals with discretionary disposable income, though, may have other priorities.  I believe that for New Zealand to do more than tread water in the scientific world that it will require those individuals who recognise the value of science to be willing to donate substantial amounts towards science, particularly towards supporting scientists (scientists first, projects second). Indeed, for my own growth and survival as a scientist – for me to be able to put the vision I articulated last week into practice, I see that it will only be possible through the generosity of others.

Totally Underwhelming

What do you get when you cross dozens of New Zealand’s best scientists with a myriad of Ministry officials?  The answer is the underwhelming reports from the 10 June workshops of the National Science Challenges. If every there was need for proof that science by committee does not work, here it is.  Each report consists of a series of power point slides with dot points. About 3 slides for each challenge pertain to confirming or changing the pre-workshop goals/themes (yes there were pre-workshop meetings in May to get these together), and then about 4 or 5 slides on “Indicative research programs.”  These handful of slides were the output of on average 44 people per group consisting of scientists, industry or other “user group” representatives, and ministry representatives.  The people I know who attended a workshop were senior and very very competent people.  The problem is not the people, but the process.  I saw nothing in the reports to inspire, and nothing that couldn’t have been cobbled together by one person after receiving emails with suggestions.  Most of the “indicative research programs” were simply restatements of the obvious questions in the field.  There was no meat. There was only one concrete proposal (High Value Nutrition proposed establishing a “Biomarker Centre”).

Recall that the 10 challenges will have $133.5M to spend over 4 years, about $3.34M per challenge per year.  The June meeting, I estimate, just cost about $0.5M in salaries for the day, overheads on those salaries, travel etc.  For $0.5M we have been given about 60 power point slides most of which could have been reproduced in half an hour or so by one or two of the scientists from each group – “Mr Speaker, would the Minister of MBIE please explain why one power point slide costs $8,300?”  Indeed, I have no doubt if the $3.34M was used to support half a dozen scientists and they were told – here’s the field (name of the challenge), you have $3.34M for each of the next 4 years, do some good science for the country in this field, – then it would be done.  Furthermore, the outcome would be at least, if not more, valuable than any multitude of small projects that are likely to emerge from the June workshops (but only after much more time and $ has been spent on more meetings, development of requests for proposals and a grant funding process that will take up many more millions and waste time for 90+% of the applicants; much as what happens now with other government funding models).  The Great Science Challenge for New Zealand is not how to define the projects, but how to provide long term sustainable funds for scientists who already know the projects.

The minister missed the point

Last week Radio NZ put together a piece on grant funding.  The audio can be downloaded from here http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2540317/scientists,-minister-at-odds-over-research-funding

Prof Juliet Gerrard, Dr Mark Green, Dr Robin Olds, Dr David Baddeley and myself all pointed out that the government grant funding system is in crisis because only 7-8% of applications are funded.  We also noted this made long science careers in this country almost impossible.  If I may add one other name, that of Sir Peter Gluckman, the government’s science advisor, who at a talk at the University of Otago Christchurch in 2009 called the time following the post-doctoral period of a scientists career as the “valley of the shadow.”  Many of today’s Professors went through that valley when there was considerably more light and less shadow.  Now, the shadows have grown long and dark and few make it through the valley.

Minister Joyce pointed out that we train twice as many science PhD’s as a few years ago and that most who go overseas “come back.”  I doubt the latter very much.  However, I am unable to find data on that.  What I did find was that the MOE themselves note the low rate of employment of PhD Natural and Physical Sciences PhD graduates.

“By field of study, graduates from ‘Natural and physical sciences’ had the lowest rate of employment [57%], while graduates from ‘Society and culture’ had the highest [65%]. Once again, this may reflect the limited employment opportunities for science researchers in New Zealand.”   (http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/104275/Do-People-with-Doctoral-Degrees-get-Jobs-in-NZ-Post-Study.pdf)

The research was based on those who graduated in 2003.  There were 199 students in this group in 2003 and 262 in 2010 (http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/tertiary_education/research). I wonder what the rate of employment is?

Minister Joyce, as one would expect, pointed out all that the present government has done for science in this country.  To be fair, they have done more than other recent governments.  Minister Joyce repeatedly pointed to the increases in science funding for various schemes.  These amount to about a 24% increase in total science funding since 2009. ie about 5 to 6% per year.  This may be compared to a consumer price index increase of about 10% over 4 years.  In other words, total government spend on science has increased at faster than the rate of inflation. Minister Joyce called this dramatic.  I wouldn’t go this far, but it is positive and good.  In the Christhurch Press, Dec 1, in an article about Sir Peter Gluckmann. Sir David Skegg, president of the Royal Society, describes the government increase for science as “modest”  and notes that “the much needed step-change in our national investment in research and development has not yet occurred…”  I couldn’t agree more.  What is needed is not 5% a year, but 50%.

Innovation is but a fraction of the tip of the iceberg.  (Work by Uwe Kils) http://www.ecoscope.com/iceberg/

Innovation is but a fraction of the tip of the iceberg. (Work by Uwe Kils) http://www.ecoscope.com/iceberg/

A few other thoughts:

The metamorphosis of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology into the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment is symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of both science and innovation.  Innovation for commercial gain is but a fraction of the visible fraction of the iceberg of science.  Innovation is built on decades of science in which the foundations are assembled molecule by molecule.  The results are a vast array of knowledge, largely freely accessible, which enables much social good and, yes, occasional commercial ventures.  The current pursuit of innovation innovation innovation threatens the very stability of the system.  If there are not scientists building the foundations, there will be little left for businesses to build on.

The grant funding system is broke.  It is time for politicians of all stripes to acknowledge that.  While additional funding is an essential element in saving our science, it is only part of the solution.  Fund scientists first, projects second.  To do otherwise is to commit the fallacy of picking winners in science – of trying to anticipate where science will be in 1, 2, 5 years.  It’s not possible and ignores that science is inherently unpredictable because it deals with what we don’t know, not with what we do.

The science funding story continues

Heads up.  A few weeks ago I posted about the crisis in grant funding in NZ.  This led to a number of discussions with a journalist from Radio New Zealand.  Laura Bootham has shown great persistance in tracking down facts and people.  I look forward to hearing what she has come up with. She tells me:
 “The story on science funding airs on Monday around 7:20am but I recommend listening from 7:10am until 7:30am news as things are liable to change depending on what happens new-wise in the interim.”