Australian science review – University of Melbourne submission



The University of Melbourne welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the
independent review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001 and how it establishes the role and purpose of the Australian Research Council (ARC) within the Australian research system.

Research is core to the progress of society, and Australia has built a reputation over many years for research excellence. From basic, curiosity-driven scholarship to the innovation of new research applications, the advancement of knowledge brings untold benefits to Australian and global communities. Basic and applied research are interdependent and both are crucial to Australia’s research and development ecosystem, which underscores much of our national productivity and wellbeing.

Australian Government funding plays an essential role in driving Australian research excellence, including through the operations of the ARC as the independent statutory agency that provides expert advice and administration of the National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP).
The University recognises the ARC’s concerted focus in recent times to meet expectations through consulting, reviewing and updating its processes and procedures, including through changes to the National Interest Test and Linkage Projects Scheme 2023 and the recent appointment of a Chief Research Officer.

In this submission the University proposes that the ARC should be mandated, through legislative changes
where appropriate, to take up a clearer leadership role, along with other publicly funded research agencies, in the overall research landscape through adoption of a stronger governance structure, evaluative capabilities, and stated strategic objectives.

While the ARC will continue to be closely informed by the stated priorities of government, it also must be equipped and resourced to undertake its independent, expert, and influential role as the leading national funding agency for non-medical research.
The ARC should be empowered in law and policy, and resourced appropriately, to be a major influence
proactively shaping the national research landscape in pursuit of a long-term vision, in accordance with a
commitment to foundational research principles of trust, integrity, excellence and accountability. To achieve this, the ARC will require: a strong and transparent evidence base about how its programs are managed, delivered and evaluated; a strengthened social licence won through more explicit engagement with civil society stakeholders on the core value of research; and a collaborative relationship with the university research sector, industry, and government.
This review is confined to operational issues and the legislative underpinnings of the ARC. However, there
are broader issues that are significant and interlinked with the ARC’s management of competitive grants
programs, including the true cost of research, the quantum of university funding and the development of
new knowledge and skills capability through higher education in Australia.
The University notes that the adequacy of research funding provided by the Australian Government is not
within the remit of this review. However, further consideration of the broader context of research funding is relevant and advisable given the ARC has a key role to play in monitoring and enabling the success of
Australian research and providing advocacy and leadership to ensure its sustainability and global

The University of Melbourne offers the following recommendations on both legislative amendments and
non-legislative process changes to better support Australian research excellence and strengthen the ARC’s
standing as an investable proposition.

  1. The ARC Act should explicitly establish the ARC’s broader strategic remit, independence, and key role in shaping
    world-leading research through grant program management, engagement, advice to government, and sector
  2. The ARC Act should be clarified to redefine the ARC’s funding scope as being for non-medical research that is
    conducted by universities and their partners.
  3. The ARC Act should require an appropriate balance of funding for basic and applied research that is weighted
    towards basic research and distributed equitably across disciplines, with explicit in-principle support for the
    essential role of basic research within the research ecosystem. This is an essential function of the ARC and will
    help secure a pipeline of translatable discoveries and new scholarship.
  4. The ARC Act should specify the ARC’s core obligations with regards to nurturing researcher development
    through fellowship and other programsto help maintain broad capability across different disciplines and strong
    evaluative capability to ensure the equity and effectiveness of its funding schemes.
  5. The ARC Act should establish a renewed Board of the ARC, with contemporary modifications and legislated
    clarity on its membership requirements, functions, authority, and transparency measures.
  6. The University recommends the establishment of a light-touch umbrella governance forum of Australia’s major
    publicly funded research funding agencies to bring greater coherence and coordination to the sector and
    contribute to an integrated national research strategy.
  7. The ARC Act should state a requirement that the CEO and Executive Directors have term limits of approximately
    five years and be of esteemed academic/research background.
  8. The ARC Act should enshrine a form of the Haldane Principle and affirm that the evaluation of the research
    merit of individual applications will be conducted through peer review (e.g., through the ARC College of Experts).
  9. In the case that the Ministerial veto power is retained in the ARC Act, it should be clearly defined and limited to
    extraordinary cases, and accompanied by a statutory timeframe for informing the public about the decision
    through tabling of reasons in Parliament by the Minister.
  10. In place of the National Interest Test, the University recommends refining Applicant Summary sections of the
    application to require a plain language explanation of the broader value of the research (which explicitly can
    include scholarly, social, economic, and national benefits).
  11. The ARC, potentially under the guidance of its new Board, should undertake high-level engagement and
    enhance understanding amongst key policymakers about the value and benefits of the research it funds, as part
    of its sectoral leadership and pivotal role in strengthening the social licence for research, across Discovery and
    Linkage schemes.
  12. While ERA has been influential in uplifting quality, it should be succeeded by a data asset (such as a National Research Capability Map) that uses latest techniques to consolidate university and non-university data, which can underpin regular structured evaluation between Australian Government and universities on outcomes and return on research investment.

For more information or to discuss this submission, please contact Professor James McCluskey AO FAA

FAHMS, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), on [email protected].

Read the full submission here

Other submissions to the ARC review published by Cosmos

Universities Australia

Group of 8 Universities

Australian Academy of Science

Professor John Long

Cosmos will publish a selection of responses to these occasional posts. Please email your thoughts direct to [email protected].

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