‘Appalling’ treatment: ANAO asked to probe research grant delays

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Joseph Brookes

The Auditor General has been asked to investigate an unprecedented delay in the announcement of research grant recipients by the federal government, as thousands of researchers prepare for a nervous wait over the holiday period.

Three major research grant programs set to fund work beginning as early as January are yet to be announced by acting Education Minister Stuart Robert. Successful applicants have been recommended to him by the Australian Research Council, and the delay in announcing recipients, which rarely deviate from the recommendations, is the longest in thirty years.

Both the ARC and Mr Robert will only say an announcement on recipients will be made in “due course” and have declined to detail the delay.

Concerns are now growing that the national security checks introduced last year could again disrupt the funding program.

Shadow Education minister Tanya Plibersek. Image: Crawford Forum

“The recommendations for grants from the ARC have been received and the Minister will now consider the recommendations,” a spokesperson for acting Education Minister Stuart Robert told InnovationAus. “An announcement will be made in due course.”

The ARC confirmed it has sent recommendations to Mr Robert for the Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities 2022, round 1 of the 2021 Linkage Projects, and Discovery Projects for 2022 programs.

While the ARC’s anticipated announcement for the Discovery Projects is the fourth quarter of 2021, grants have historically been announced by early November and when the next announcement is made it will be the latest in 30 years.

The Linkage Infrastructure announcement is also officially marked for anytime in the fourth quarter, while Linkage Projects was expected by October.

Together the rounds are expected to represent more than $320 million in funding and include the main funding mechanism for so-called blue sky research.

The ARC, which administers around $800 million in research funding, said submissions for the three programs had undergone rigorous review. It declined to say if information on national security risks – which held up announcements last year – had been requested by the government.

“Grant opportunities undergo rigorous peer review and due diligence processes,” an ARC spokesperson said. “All dates on the ARC calendar are indicative.”

Universities, the Opposition, the peak science group, and a research grant expert say the delays are unprecedented, are causing stress among applicants and forcing some overseas.

The Group of Eight (Go8) universities, which together undertake around 70 percent of university-based research in Australia, last week called for the government to urgently finalise ARC Discovery Grants.

“Go8 researchers prepared and submitted applications almost 12 months ago, applicants’ responses to the assessment closed six months ago and some projects are scheduled to commence in a matter of weeks,” Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said.

“The current delay is unprecedented and not seen in the 30-year history of this and similar funding rounds.”

An Australian researcher, who runs the popular ARC Tracker Twitter account, said the latest delay is part of an uncertainty “destroying” research in Australia because programs have historically been geared towards announcements by late October and early November.

The researcher, who asked to remain anonymous, told InnovationAus applicants now face a holiday break without knowing if they will have a job to return to. Others, unable to wait, have been forced to leave Australia for foreign universities, they said.

“The ARC just doesn’t appear to be fit for purpose at the moment,” the researcher said.

“They’re just not able to instruct the system that allows research to get done in Australia. The timescales are too long, the back and forth with the minister takes too long. Now there’s security issues thrown in the mix.

“It’s becoming baroque and broke, to be honest. It’s just not working.”

Science & Technology Australia chief executive office Misha Schubert said the delay needed to be resolved now.

“The current rounds of ARC-funded Discovery projects should have been announced six weeks ago – and Linkage grants for industry-partnered work should have been announced in October,” she told InnovationAus.

“Typically in a Discovery grant round, around 800 to 1000 researchers are funded for three year projects.”

“These lengthy delays in 2021 – coming on top of all the other stresses the research sector has carried this year – mean there will be many brilliant scientists and researchers who don’t know if they will have a job in 10 days’ time.”

On Monday, shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek asked the national audit office to investigate the issue.

“In our view, the Government’s unacceptable delay in announcing Australian Research Grants is a serious failure of public administration – a matter of national interest that bears further scrutiny,” Ms Plibersek’s letter to the Auditor General said.

“With only seven working days left this year, researchers across the nation are yet to receive a decision about their 2022 Australian Research Grant applications.

The shadow education minister flagged the unprecedented delay and the uncertainty it was causing researchers.

“This is causing significant uncertainty for around five thousand Australian researchers who don’t know whether they’ll have a job next year or whether their projects will have funding,” the letter said.

“That is disaster for individual researchers and projects. It’s also a disaster for our nation – for our economy, and for jobs. We fear many of our brilliant researchers will be driven overseas, or out of research altogether.”

The researcher behind the ARC Tracker Twitter account, which scrapes the ARC’s online database for announcements, said it is unclear what exactly had delayed the latest announcements.

But they said there are growing concerns in the research community that the national security vetting of applicants – including the ARC coordinating checks between universities and security agencies – is slowing down grant approvals.

“There’s genuine questions there about is the ARC in a position to do this [security check]?” ARC Tracker said.

“And they have put universities in an untenable position about this, because they don’t even know what the [security] issues are typically and how do they avoid them?

“There’s a really big storm brewing there. I think there’s already a big storm going on between some vice chancellors and the ARC about this.”

Science & Technology Australia, which represents around 80,000 scientists and technologists in Australia, is calling for a fixed timetable for ARC programs to reduce the uncertainty.

“Every ARC scheme should have fixed dates for applications, approvals and announcements to give our researchers certainty, and ensure we aren’t giving our competitor nations a huge opportunity to steal our best talent,” Ms Schubert said. “That would also help industry partners to collaborate with researchers – business absolutely needs clear and consistent timeframes.”

Ms Plibersek laid the blame for the latest uncertainty and delay on the Prime Minister.

“After two years from hell, it’s appalling that government is serving up our researchers this uncertainty. This is a research brain drain created by our own Prime Minister,” she said.

“Scott Morrison simply can’t be serious about research commercialisation if he continues to trash the universities that train and employ our brilliant researchers,” she said.

“He’s cut their funding. When universities needed a lifeline during COVID, Scott Morrison abandoned them. What happened? Research projects stopped. Campuses closes, especially in regional Australia. Forty thousand university jobs were cut. Seven thousand brilliant researchers lost their jobs, with many fleeing overseas.

“New technologies and breakthroughs don’t come out of thin air – we need researchers to invent or discover them. And Scott Morrison’s driving many of those clever researchers out of work.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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