Judi Zielke’s acting chief executive role at the Australian Research Council has been converted into a permanent position with a five-year term announced by the government on Saturday, a day before the election was called.
It follows a $50,000 external recruitment process that had shortlisted around 10 other candidates.
Ms Zielke will lead the troubled Australian Research Council (ARC), responsible for more than $800 million in research funding per year, as it reforms its governance and strategy while facing scrutiny from a research community still reeling from unprecedented delays and alleged political interference in funding decisions.
Ms Zielke’s long-term appointment was welcomed by science and university groups. The researchers’ union also congratulated Ms Zielke but added the decision should have waited until after the election.
Brought in from CSIRO in February, Ms Zielke is a long-time public servant who has held senior roles in Trade, the Attorney General’s department and Industry and Innovation and Infrastructure, and was responsible for the science agency’s finance, property, governance and corporate affairs as chief operating officer.
She was selected as acting ARC chief executive by acting Education minister Stuart Robert, who was under fire for delays to funding announcements and blocking research funding for six humanities projects late last year.
Mr Robert had also set new “expectations” for the agency which will see more involvement and consideration of industry in the traditionally academic ARC funding process, and an alignment of most collaborative research funding with six national manufacturing priorities.
The previous ARC chief executive left the agency early after receiving the new expectations, leading to Ms Zielke’s initial acting chief executive role.
On Saturday, Mr Robert congratulated Ms Zielke and thanked her for her work on the changes in a statement confirming her permanent appointment.
“Ms Zielke’s appointment comes at a critical time where the Government is working to ensure that publicly funded research has even greater impacts on Australia’s economic and societal challenges,” Mr Robert said.
“I would like to thank Ms Zielke for the work she has done to progress my Letter of Expectations in a short period of time as acting chief executive officer.”
Ms Zielke’s administrative background was seen as a potential asset by parts of the research sector when she was first appointed after unprecedented funding delays. But others were hoping for someone with a research background to help repair deteriorating relations with the sector after another round of Coalition funding vetoes.
The new ARC leader is a supporter of the ministerial oversight of the agency, including the minister’s ability to reject the ARC’s funding recommendations on their own interpretation of national interest. She has blamed the most recent backlash on grant vetoes on poor communication and researchers not understanding the minister’s role.
In the minister’s statement Saturday, Ms Zielke said she looked forward to working with all research stakeholders.
“The significant work of the ARC could not be achieved without the contributions and support of the team, the research sector and Government. I look forward to continuing to work with everyone to maximise the impact of Australia’s world leading university research,” she said.
At a March Senate Estimates hearing Education department officials said a competitive recruitment process was then underway through external recruitment agency Amanda O’Rourke and Associates.
At this stage around 10 candidates had been shortlisted and officials had not indicated Ms Zielke was under consideration but noted the minister could make their own recommendations for consideration.
The final decision was made by Cabinet after Mr Robert’s recommendation, and announced the day before the election was called.
Amanda O’Rourke and Associates were awarded a $49,500 limited tender contract to conduct executive recruitment services for the ARC’s chief executive in mid-January. This contract was set to run to the end of May.
National Tertiary Education Union national president Dr Alison Barnes congratulated the new ARC chief executive but said the appointment should have waited until after the election due to the current acting education minister’s alleged political interference in the ARC.
“We congratulate Judi Zielke on the appointment and wish her the best in this very important role,” Dr Barnes told InnovationAus.
“However, we note the appointment was announced a day before the election was called and given the previous chief executive officer resigned following minister Robert’s politically motivated interference with the Australian Research Council, the decision should have been left to the next government.”
Peak science and university groups also congratulated Ms Zielke on her appointment.
“It is a complex leadership role that requires deep knowledge of the worlds of research, the public service and the Parliament,” Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said.
“Ms Zielke’s vast experience in these worlds and her clear desire to engage the research sector on key issues and test ideas before implementation will be strong assets in the time ahead.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson also congratulated Ms Zielke.
“Ms Zielke’s appointment comes at a pivotal moment for the ARC. There is a significant opportunity to ensure the ARC has robust governance, robust peer review and real transparency in everything it does,” she said.
“The ARC provides significant funding for ground-breaking research produced by Australia’s universities, both basic and translational.”
The ARC last week announced a new advisory committee to work with Ms Zielke on the agency’s strategy.
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