NHMRC’s $16m IT blowout: have you tried turning off and on again?

By Michael Woodhead

4 Nov 2019

NHMRC officials have had to fend off questions in parliament about a $16 million blowout in costs for its as-yet untried new grants management IT system, Sapphire.

The new system is being developed to replace the ageing Research Grants Management System (RGMS), but Senators have been asking why the costs of the program have already exceeded $16 million when the initial contract was for just $3 million.

Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill told the health Budget Estimates Committee that the cost of the new grants management system seemed enormous given the NHMRC’s annual budget is $37 million.

But health department bureaucrats denied the increase was a blowout, and said design changes had been needed to meet growing expectations for the system to work with ‘additional capabilities’ such as with the Medical Research Future Fund.

Officials told the Committee that the $16 million and growing costs of the new IT system was “not particularly outside of expectations” and described it as “a relatively modest amount for the complexity of trying to support peer review and trying to support not only our own organisation but other organisations such as the Department of Health into the future.”

NHMRC director Professor Ann Kelso told the Committee that the new system was urgently needed to replace the current RGMS system which was “on its last legs’ and struggling to handle all of the NHMRC grants processes for 5000 applications a year.

“It’s a system through which applicants all around the country submit grant applications,” she explained.

“It’s the system through which we then allocate grants out to expert reviewers around the country and internationally to enable them to undertake peer review of our grant applications. It’s the system that manages the processes when we draw together grant review panels. It’s the system that manages the award of grants and then all the post-award management of grants.”

Professor Kelso said the system is being piloted in 2020 for Development Grants applications

“Subject to the success of that pilot, we will roll the system out all through the next year in all of our other grants schemes and also in the MRFF schemes that the department asks us to run. So it’s an absolutely critical piece of infrastructure that we’re developing as fast as we can with the resources available, but it is inevitably complex.”

Professor Kelso was unable to answer questions from senators about whether the system was diverting NHMRC resources and staff from other programs, and creating a backlog of work at the NHMRC.

“It sounds like it might be a project that is useful to turn off and back on again, Professor Kelso,” quipped Greens Senator Jordon Alexander Steele-John.

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