ARC chief is out after ‘new direction’ for uni research funding

By Joseph Brookes

The Coalition is overhauling university research funding and governance to align it with its manufacturing priorities and commercialisation agenda, in a “new direction” the government says will drive Australia’s pandemic recovery from next year.

The changes include a “stronger governance structure” for the Australian Research Council (ARC) through  more input from businesses and research end users into grant assessments, and an alignment of most collaborative research funding with six national manufacturing priorities.

No new funding was announced, and university sector groups are keen for more details on how the reforms will work next year, while unions have flagged them as a potential politicisation of the ARC.

Labor said it will have a “close look” at the proposal and remains concerned about the treatment of Australian researchers generally.

Acting Minister for Education and Youth Stuart Robert – who has taken on the portfolio responsibilities of Alan Tudge – outlined the reforms in a letter of expectations sent last week to ARC chief executive Sue Thomas, who subsequently advised the government that she will step down from the role early next year, six months short of the typical five year term.

Mr Robert (pictured) called for the ARC’s $326 million Linkage program, which comprises a range of schemes aimed at building collaborative research partnerships between researchers in universities and other organisations, to receive 40 per cent of the ARC’s total grant funding and for it to be aligned to the government’s research commercialisation agenda from next year.

In future Linkage Program rounds, the ARC will recommend 70 per cent of applied research grants fall under the six government-determined National Manufacturing Priorities, which are resource technology and critical minerals processing, space, medical products, food and beverage, Defence, and recycling and clean energy.

“By clearly specifying priorities from the outset of the grant consideration process, researchers and their sponsoring universities can ensure that the best research capabilities and the highest quality applications can be focused on the key areas of national need,” Mr Robert said in his letter of expectations to the ARC.

“It is my belief this approach will strengthen the quality of Australia’s research endeavour.”

The union representing university researchers said it has concerns the changes will lead to “government interference in the independence of the Australian Research Council”.

“While reducing the proportion of funding to the higher education sector and refusing to assist with the COVID-related job losses of thousands of researchers, the Morrison Government is now seeking to influence the ARC’s independence through regulatory directions requiring the ARC to channel 70 per cent of its linkage grant funds towards areas of political priority,” National Tertiary Education Union national president Dr Alison Barnes told InnovationAus.

“After standing by and watching 35,000 jobs cut from public universities while ignoring calls for urgent funding, the Morrison Government cannot now pretend to care about our world class researchers.

The priorities will not be applied to the ARC’s $485 million discovery research program but the government has asked for the blue-sky research program to give more consideration to “potential gains and practical outcomes” from proposed research and its likely contribution to the national interest.

Peak body Universities Australia welcomed the recognition of importance of discovery research and said it looked forward to working though the details of the reform package next year.

“As the nation’s largest non-medical research grants organisation, the ARC is a significant pillar underpinning the research that contributes to our country’s social and economic fabric. We look forward to maintaining the ARC’s robust peer review processes for grant selection,” Universities Australia chief  executive Catriona Jackson said.

“The ARC plays a critical role supporting the foundational research that leads to tomorrow’s great innovations.”

Mr Robert, who is acting Education minister after Alan Tudge was stood down following allegations of an abusive extra-marital affair, also told the ARC that the National Interest Test (NIT) applied to grant applications needs to be strengthened with more input from non-university groups.

“…I ask the ARC to bring forward a proposal to enhance and expand the role of the industry and other end-user experts in assessing the NIT of high-quality projects, prior to recommendation to me as the responsible Minister.”

Mr Robert asked for a review of the ARC’s College of Experts, the 201 academics that manage grant applications and recommendations, to support a more robust NIT.

The College should be expanded to include “include experts from backgrounds beyond universities, in particular those from industry and other end-user groups”, according to Mr Robert.

“This may require redesigning the grants assessment process to manage the demand on such people in a manner consistent with the roles against which they provide their expertise, such as through the assessment of impact or research questions that cut across discipline areas.”

The Coalition government has also requested the ARC develop better organisational governance through a new designated committee to support the chief executive with advice on a new three year strategy.

Again, the government has requested more involvement from industry and end users.

“The committee should build on the expertise of the existing Advisory Committee by bringing additional external anp [SIC] end-user perspectives to the governance of the Council and its programs in order to reflect the Government’s current priorities.”

The government has requested the ARC provide advice on the new committee’s membership and terms of reference by the end of the year – less than a month after receiving the formal request.

Mr Robert also request the ARC fast track the recommendations it has accepted from two reviews of the organisation.

Labor said it will talk with researchers about the reforms, and is concerned about how they have been treated by the government during the pandemic, including the current delay in announcing grant recipients.

“But there’s no excuse for the fact it’s middle of December and Scott Morrison still hasn’t told 5000 Australian researchers whether they’ll have a job next year or whether their projects will have funding. This is the longest delay in announcing these government research grants in 30 years,” shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek told InnovationAus.

“After two years from hell, it’s appalling that government is serving up our researchers this uncertainty. Scott Morrison will not be happy until he’s driven every Australian researcher overseas.

“This is a research brain drain created by our own Prime Minister. Scott Morrison simply can’t be serious about research commercialisation if he continues to trash the universities that train and employ our brilliant researchers.”

Tying funding to translation outcomes and areas of national priority has been proposed by  Siemens Australia chairman and chief executive Jeff Connolly, who has led the government’s review of university research commercialisation.

This article originally appeared at InnovationAus.

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