Rethinking research funding

| April 23, 2023

Education Minister Jason Clare has just released a highly anticipated review into how research is funded in Australia.

This is the review of the federal legislation underpinning the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The ARC is the independent body that funds non-medical university research in Australia. So it has a hugely important role in the careers of academics.

This review follows years of concerns about political interference in ARC decisions and low success rates for academics applying for funding.

What does the review say?

The review began last year and was led by Queensland University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Margaret Sheil. It is a comprehensive product, containing ten considered recommendations on how to enhance the ARC’s procedures. The review says these

“aim to enhance the trust in the ARC by the government and the research community.”

They include:

  • clarifying the purpose of the ARC
  • further clarity and insight into the role and impact of the ARC in relation to supporting academic careers and
  • more ARC fellowships for Indigenous academics.

At the heart of the review is the recommendation for a new ARC board of directors, appointed by the education minister, to run the ARC separate from political interference.

This would remove the capacity of ministers to step in and block funding to certain projects at the last minute.

The objective is to make the ARC more independent – in legislation and practice – so it can act at arm’s length from the government of the day.

A more autonomous ARC

Historically, the review harks back to the foundation of the ARC as an autonomous non-government organisation in 1988. But even then, the final say over grants was given to the education minister of the day.

As the review notes, since its legislation was updated in 2001, the ARC’s autonomy has declined, along with trust in its work.

This was highlighted by ministerial interventions to veto grants in the humanities and social science in at least five separate occasions (most recently by former minister Stuart Robert in 2021).

Ministerial vetos

Significantly, the review recommends the ARC be given the full power to make decisions over research grants (officially called the National Competitive Grants Program).

It notes there should be checks and balances and the minister could still intervene in the “extraordinary circumstance of a potential threat to national security”.

Here, the board will be critical. It will have responsibility for appointing the ARC’s CEO, as well as the the college of experts (who assess grant applications). It will then approve grant recommendations by the college.

The board would still be appointed by the minister. It would include a chair who is a “prominent Australian, held in high regard by the universities” and six other members with combined skills across ARC disciplines, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island leadership in research.

The minister’s role in appointing the board and chair does not guarantee these appointments are immune from party politics and ideology. However, the aim of keeping ministers at arm’s length from the ARC grant processes is a step in the right direction.

Simpler grant applications

One of the major frustrations researchers have with the ARC process is the time it takes to apply for grants and the low rates of success.

Here, the review recommends a constructive change. Under a new model, researchers would apply via a two-step process.

Firstly, they would provide a brief outline of the research objective to the ARC. The ARC would assess it and make recommendations on whether a full, second-round application is warranted.

It does not guarantee a rise in success rates as this is tied to the substantive issue of available funding. But it does alleviate the arduous and overly bureaucratic approach of the current model, both for researchers and university research branches.

A new auditing role

A decisive recommendation is for a change to the ARC’s role in auditing research for quality. Previously, this has been done through the Excellence in Research Australia process via university submissions.

The review strongly opposes the existing metric-driven model, noting “the evidence that metrics can be biased or inherently flawed”.

Instead, the review wants to see a new approach whereby the ARC would cooperate with TEQSA – the university regulatory body – to develop a framework for research quality and impact.

This change will be welcomed by universities and academics, as the previous model tended to be top-heavy in its approach.

What about funding?

One issue with the review is its silence about funding. While this silence was not unexpected (terms of reference were aimed at the procedures not financing), it is still an issue.

For universities, ARC funding does not currently meet their costs in both infrastructure and staffing to service the ARC grant.

So universities largely rely on overseas student fees to meet research costs. As the pandemic showed us, these are subject to fluctuations.

This unpredictability has ramifications for university budgets and staffing, as well as the quality of research.

A step forward

Overall, the review is a step in the right direction for the academic research community and for the clarity of purpose and procedures of the ARC.

But the big question remains: will the ARC be given more adequate funds for research in Australia?

On this matter, we must turn to the current review for the Universities Accord. The federal government says this ARC review will be considered as part of broader discussions around the accord. Here, we can expect a draft in June.

When it comes to the ARC review, Clare says he will “consider the findings […] and respond in due course”.