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Website meltdown leaves scientists fuming
Australia's top medical research funding body has vowed to make changes to its online system for funding applications after repeated malfunctions left many scientists fuming.

Thousands of medical researchers across the country rely on $700 million of annual grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But the agency has been forced to shut down its online system twice in the past week to try and fix bugs that meant researchers have been struggling to complete vital funding applications.

The problems followed similar woes last year.

"It's worse than appalling," says Professor Julie Campbell, president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes. "This is wasting weeks and weeks of researchers' time. It is also real mental torture. Your whole livelihood is hanging in the balance."

With application deadlines looming, she says the technical glitches left scientists feeling "anxious, upset, frustrated and angry".

Campbell says the CEO of the NHMRC, Warwick Anderson, was accountable for fixing the problem. "The buck stops with Warwick. He has to take responsibility."
Ways forward

Warwick Anderson has publicly apologised to scientists several times in recent days.

In an interview, he acknowledged the system hadn't delivered an acceptable level of service to researchers. But he says the NHMRC would make changes for next year's funding round.

"We will absolutely commit to the research community that we will make this as easy as possible to complete next year and I think we've got some reasonable ways forward on that," he says.

Rather than being forced to fill in forms online, which seemed to be the cause of the current problems, under new arrangements scientists might apply "much less live online and more offline, and then occasional uploading," he says.

"There are some options that we are already getting advice on so that researchers have a much better experience in terms of getting information into [the system]."

The NHMRC has also extended deadlines to give researchers more time to complete their applications. However this prompted some scientists to worry that the process of evaluating their applications would be hurried.

Anderson says this would not be the case. "Although [the website] is off the air to applicants, we already know what people are going to apply for this year because we have had more than 3000 applications, some of them almost finished and the majority towards being finished."

"So we can already begin allocation to peer review panels and external reviewers," he says. "None of that will be affected, even though we have had to put the grant deadline back by a month."
A great idea

The NHMRC bought the current online system from software firm CA in late 2008, for $3.3 million.

"I think that the whole of the research community would agree that having an online grant management system is critical," says Professor Douglas Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.

"It's a great idea, it's what the research community needed, but it's been implemented in a disappointing manner,"

Hilton says the proposed changes to the system, to allow more offline form-filling, were welcome.

"It would have been wonderful if it had been implemented two years ago."

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