Science leaders warily welcome Research Council review

Australia’s peak science bodies are pressuring the government to accept the recommendations of the review of the Australian Research Council Act, which was released today.

The government response will be led by Education Minister Jason Clare and Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic, who have crucial decisions to make in response to the review, but three stand out: will it retain a broad power of veto over funding allocations; how will it direct overall grant funding; and how much of the nation’s GDP will it target for research, development and science?

Clare said today the Government will respond in due course: “This is the first comprehensive review of the ARC in 22 years.

“The report recognises the long and important history of the ARC and makes recommendations to modernise legislation and strengthen governance arrangements.

“Australian researchers are some of the best in the world and the ARC is a leader within the higher education sector.”

Following months of consultations, the Department of Education released ARC review, which attracted 223 public submissions and contains 10 recommendations.

Catriona Jackson, CEO of Universities Australia, said past interventions have eroded confidence in Australia’s research program.

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Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia

“We have an opportunity now to right those wrongs,” Jackson says.

“Australia has long benefitted from having one of the world’s best research systems – keeping it that way is in the nation’s best interest. A strong and independent Australian Research Council is central to this.

“We are best served by a system with strong governance, peer review and genuine transparency at its core and we are pleased that the recommendations to government support these needs.

“The panel has acknowledged this and backed a rigorous process with the establishment of an ARC Board with decision-making power on grant funding in response to merit-based recommendations.”

Jackson says the panel has struck the right balance in limiting the ‘ministerial veto power’ for use only when national security is concerned – with an appropriate level of transparency.

Kylie Walker, CEO of The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) says the proposed new approvals process will provide certainty that research proposals will be assessed by experts on their scientific and research merits.

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Kylie Walker, CEO, STA

“Restricting the ministerial veto and requiring transparency for such decisions, as we outlined in ATSE’s submission, is a critical recommendation of the Review,” says Walker.

ATSE called on the Albanese government to conduct a broader review of national research funding, saying its aim should be: “…to bring total R&D funding to levels comparable with our international competitors, around 3% of GDP.”

 Walker was disappointed that the review recommendations did not address funding the full cost of research, relegating this to the concurrent Universities Accord process.

“This issue must not be allowed to fall through the gaps. We call on the Universities Accord panel to develop a plan for sufficiently funding the indirect costs of research.”

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ATSE was also disappointed the Panel did not seek to address the uncertainty caused by irregular and unpredictable grant outcome dates.

 “Legislated grant announcement dates would provide greater certainty to researchers – particularly those who are most vulnerable in the system; junior researchers employed on short-term contracts whose careers have been dependent on announcements made at the directive of the serving Minister.”

The Australian Academy of Science President Professor Chennupati Jagadish says the underlying theme of the review is: “…trust with a strong emphasis on the critical role of the ARC in Australia’s research system.”

“The Academy welcomes the recommendation that the commitment to funding basic research should be incorporated into the ARC’s purpose under the Act,” Professor Jagadish says.

AAS President Professor Chennupati Jagadish

“The Academy views this as important to safeguard fundamental research that grows our knowledge base.”

Jagadish said the focus of ministerial discretion around National Competitive Grants Process (NCGP), rather than on individual grants, would place the recommendations and approvals in the hands of the people with the expertise to assess their merit.

“It is positive to see the recommendations to advance Indigenous Australians in research and recognition of the impact of the ARC on attracting and retaining research talent,” Professor Jagadish said.

“The recommendations in the review are so important and sensible that the Academy looks forward to their implementation as soon as practicable.”

Misha Schubert , CEO of Science and Technology Australia, commended the review panel on legislative and regulatory recommendations to strengthen ARC operations and independence.

“We’re delighted to see the expert panel have listened to the challenges faced by the sector and responded thoughtfully and cleverly,” Schubert says.

“The proposed changes would create stronger guardrails to prevent future political interference in the awarding of grants, safeguard the crucial investment in discovery breakthroughs, and profoundly relieve one of the major stresses on Australia’s research workforce.”

“Shifting to a two-stage application would be a gamechanger for productivity, wellbeing and morale in Australia’s brilliant research workforce. “It can free up researchers who currently spend hundreds of hours writing full funding applications – when around only one in five of those applications gets funded.”

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