In September 2022 the Australian Government announced plans to refresh Australia’s Science and Research Priorities and the National Science Statement.
This is the Australian Institute of Physics submission.
When the government trusts the Australian Research Council, science in Australia will have a bright future
Keep short-term politics out of science funding by articulating clear processes and by the inclusion of researchers in decision making
A wind of change may soon blow through Australia’s research and higher education sector. A major government consultation is underway with the Review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001.
Following our earlier advocacy, the Australian Institute of Physics will not miss the opportunity to express the views of many physicists and other scientists across Australia on the 9 questions posed by the consultation paper for the Review of the Australian Research Council Act.
A key issue is the relative importance of fundamental and applied research. The AIP strongly advocates for a healthy balance, with both areas supported by well-managed ARC funding schemes. While the AIP strongly supports the translation of research to real-world problems, maintaining this balance requires a particular commitment to funding a diverse range of fundamental research. It is important to recognise that many technological and scientific breakthroughs were enabled by blue skies research that, at the time when it was originally conducted, had no foreseeable commercial application. Therefore, to grow the research pipeline from fundamental to applied, it is essential to ensure that basic discovery science is well supported.
In terms of governance and management, the AIP advocates for structures that strengthen the confidence of the government and research community in the ARC, and the meaningful engagement of the research community in decision-making.
Regarding the integration of academic expertise in decision-making, the AIP strongly advocates for the pre-eminence of peer review in grant assessment. In line with current practice, funding decisions should be made on the basis of rigorous review of scientific merit by peer reviewers and expert panels, and with track record assessed relative to opportunity. We recommend the creation of an ARC Board, which should consist of prominent members of the research community appointed by the research community. We recommend that the ARC Board appoint the ARC CEO, who must have high-level research and management expertise.
In terms of funding decisions, we advocate for processes that are free from political interference. Currently, funding decisions on individual ARC research grants require approval from the federal minister. To our knowledge, no other advanced democratic country includes a ministerial veto over research funding. This system damages Australia’s international reputation in the research community. In accordance with the internationally widely accepted Haldane principle, the government should define policy that is then implemented by an independent funding body. The recent bipartisan support for ministerial veto rights (https://aip.org.au/Advocacy/12689447) to grants – beyond arguments around national security – is rooted in the lack of trust of the government in the ARC. This is not productive and this trust should be central to the ARC Act. We recommend that the minister has no veto power over research grants.
With respect to the National Interest Test (NIT), the AIP is of the view that it should be removed. The AIP believes that strengthening the social licence for public funding is of critical importance. However, in our view, the NIT does little to achieve this aim. Good value for money for our society needs to be achieved by a robust policy framework. In addition, we consider that the social licence of public funding would be strengthened by ensuring that the funding system is held in high regard by the science community and by the Australian public, is viewed as impartial and fair, and is free from the perception of political interference.
Overall, perhaps the most important task in reshaping the ARC is to aim for processes and practices that are trusted and valued by the research community. That trust will translate to engagement of the research community. And it will lead to public confidence in Australia’s research funding system.
A clear separation of policy making and strategy on the one hand, and merit assessment and funding decisions on the other will provide the clarity of process to help build that trust.
Some good guidance can also be found in the ‘Recommendations on Science and Scientific Researchers’ by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), including the following which the AIP fully supports:
“Member States should treat public funding of research and development as a form of public investment the returns on which are, for the most part, necessarily long-term, and take all appropriate measures to ensure that the justification for, and indeed the indispensability of such investment is held constantly before public opinion.”
Australian Institute of Physics
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Terms of reference of science review
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Originally published by Cosmos as Australian Institute of Physics response to national science review
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