A team of 10 women researchers will launch an innovative project to tackle the leading cause of hospitalisation in older Indigenous people following a $3 million funding injection.

The exceptional grant to an all-woman team has kick-started work into the prevention of falls, which the researchers said affect one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people each year, contributing to injuries and deaths.

The Ironbark program, developed by researchers at The George Institute for Global Health in partnership with local communities, will use the NHMRC funds to embark on a trial in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia delivering culturally tailored yarning circles and strength and balance classes to around 600 people aged 45 years and older.

The program team, which will partner with organisations in remote settings to deliver the program and use Skype and YouTube to provide training and support to facilitators, is breaking ground.

“It is highly unusual to have an all-woman team awarded from any funding agency,” director of The George Institute’s Injury Division and project lead Professor Rebecca Ivers said.

 “We have ten women as chief investigators, including three Aboriginal researchers. The application succeeded because we worked together with our community partners to develop a program that addresses an issue of importance to older Aboriginal people – healthy aging.

“This combined with a very strong, experienced team of investigators with a long record of collaborative work, and a strong methodological approach led to our success. A steering committee with multiple Aboriginal community members has oversight of the program.”

 Not only will the project contribute to improved indigenous health outcomes, but it represents progress for women grant applicants.

In a data analysis, Professor Deb Verhoeven from the University of Technology Sydney and her team discovered a “Daversity” problem in grant funding.

They studied National Health and Medical Research Council program grants from 2003-18 and Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities grants from 2008-17 and discovered that most of the grants were awarded to men named David.

Of the ARC LIEF grants, 131 recipients were named David, while Jennifers were successful 15 times. Davids were the most commonly funded by the NHMRC with 51 grants, while Suzanne, the top female name, received funding on six occasions.

The research showed that 79 per cent of the ARC LIEF and 82 per cent of the NHMRC grant recipients were male. Over 80 per cent of the men awarded NHMRC grants apparently worked in all-male teams.

NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso said the council was putting in place initiatives to improve success rates for women applicants.

She said “real progress” was being made in eliminating all-male grant review panels, with women now comprising 42 per cent of the panels overall, compared to 25 per cent in 2000.

According to the NHMRC, women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers, yet only 17 per cent of senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes. 

An NHMRC study of application numbers and funded rates by gender for its fellowship schemes shows that the retention rate for women throughout the organisation’s research career pathway is lower than for men, reflecting a loss of talent from the health and medical research at the middle and later career stages.

Kelso said the NHMRC is “deeply concerned” about the impact this has on Australia’s contribution to global health and medical research.

To redress the imbalance, she said the organisation was making strides, including the establishment of the NHMRC Women in Health Science Working Committee in 2012 to gain a better understanding of the barriers female researchers face and strategies that could improve their retention and progression.

 Late last year, the NHMRC also announced an initiative to fund 34 additional female lead investigators in the 2017 Project Grants scheme.

“These initiatives are needed as an independent analysis of our scheme data over the last 15 years shows that time alone will not improve application and funded rates for women,” she said.

To be eligible to administer NHMRC funds, universities and research institutions must now have policies in place to meet seven gender equity requirements, including institutional strategies addressing the underrepresentation of women in senior positions, mentoring and skills training strategies, pay equity for similar work, and transitional support to encourage return to work.

 “In the short term, this intervention sends the message that gender equality is a priority for NHMRC. In the future we hope that this initiative will be unnecessary, with women and men achieving approximately equal application and funded rates without intervention,” Kelso said.

As for the Ironbark project, the funds were urgently needed to help address a rapidly growing public health issue for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Fall-related injury cases rose by an average of 10.2 per cent per year from 2007-08 to 2010-11, compared to a 4.3 per cent average annual increase for all other older Australians.

The project – a collaboration between researchers at UNSW, the University of Sydney, Wollongong University, Flinders University and Curtin University – is based on a NSW pilot in which participants reported lowered use of their canes, improved confidence and weight loss. The project is expected to start in mid-2018 and if successful will ideally be rolled out nationwide.

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