A review of the Australian Research Council triggered by allegations of political interference in grant decisions and poor administration at the agency has recommended ministers be removed from the approval process of $800 million in research grants.
In opposition, Labor ruled out removing ministerial approval altogether, but the first comprehensive review of the Australian Research Council (ARC) in its 22-year history adds more weight to the call.
InnovationAus.com understands Education minister Jason Clare is open to reconsidering the now government’s position but is still considering the full findings.
The landmark review led by QUT Vice Chancellor chief executive Professor Margaret Sheil also recommends a significant shift to a two-stage application process, and increased engagement with Indigenous researchers and communities.
The six-month review came after repeated ministerial interventions in research grant decisions and criticisms about the administration of the ARC.
Released on Thursday, the review found government ministers should not have final approval of competitive grant decisions except in limited national security circumstances, and to safeguard discovery research funding with an account.
The ARC administers the government-funded National Competitive Grants Program, assessing and recommending research and research training projects for grants after a rigorous peer review process.
The grants, which together deliver around $800 million a year to researchers, currently require ministerial approval. Historically this has been a formality, with grants recommended by the ARC overwhelming approved.
But the minister’s power to not approve – an effective veto of projects endorsed by experts in the field – has been exercised by several Coalition Education or acting Education ministers.
These interventions were made by at least four Coalition Ministers on at least six occasions, most recently in late 2021 when Stuart Robert vetoed six humanities projects on Christmas eve.
The interventions have been widely condemned by Australian academics and attracted international condemnation.
The ARC review found the interventions, outside of one made on national security grounds, amounted to a “lack of trust in the peer review process on the part of the minister of the day”.
“The lack of confidence by the relevant ministers in the ARC in turn creates a spiral that reflects on trust in the ARC itself by other stakeholders,” it said.
“Applying for an ARC grant is a career-defining, labour-intensive process with a success rate of around 20 per cent, and these arbitrary interventions have been a widespread source of despair, particularly acute in the humanities in which the majority of the cancelled projects were focused.”
The lack of trust also impacted the academics which had assessed the applications – some resigned following Mr Robert’s intervention – and peer reviewers generally, while also damaging Australia’s international reputation.
“Repeated interventions have also put at risk this largely voluntary contribution of labour which builds trust in the integrity of the peer review processes… The practice of over-riding expert advice is anathema to world’s best practice, and objections have been raised by foreign governments, comparable research agencies, international learned academies, scientific and academic societies, and in the pages of the world’s leading scientific journals.”
The review said individual grants should not require the minister’s approval, with the decision instead finalised by a new ARC board based on the chief executive’s merit-based recommendations following the peer review process.
Ministers should retain approvals for guidelines and total funding, and keep an intervention power only for extraordinary instances of national security but would need to explain the reason why to Parliament, the review recommended.
Competitive grant funds should come from an ARC Research Endowment Account — as is the case with a similar account for the National Health and Medical Research Council. This would ring fence the funding from ministerial intervention, but the minister could still be involved in other grant programs the ARC may administer.
A bipartisan Senate committee last year rejected a bill that would strip the Education minister of veto powers for the competitive funding, but Labor has offered a “guarantee” it would approve ARC recommended projects.
A two-stage funding proposal application process should also be considered after receiving “overwhelming support” during the review. This would come as part of a new “simplified and streamlined” guidelines for competitive ARC grants, to bring the agency in line with international practice.
The two-stage process could introduce short expressions of interest or preliminary applications that have a relatively low rate of approval, before full proposals are developed, thereby lessening the burden on applicants, which routinely report ARC applications as an onerous task and not the optimal use of researchers time.
The review has also recommended advancing the support for Indigenous Australian academics through better consultation and additional ARC fellowships, while Indigenous community organisations should be more involved ARC funded collaborative research programs.
The agency should also use some of its grants to “fund research that may have a positive impact on Indigenous Knowledge systems and Peoples”.
Education minister Jason Clare said the government is now considering the findings and will respond in “due course”.
“The report recognises the long and important history of the ARC and makes recommendations to modernise legislation and strengthen governance arrangements,” Mr Clare said.
“Australian researchers are some of the best in the world and the ARC is a leader within the higher education sector.”
Peak body Science and Technology Australia welcomed the release of the review and its recommendations.
“The proposed changes would create stronger guardrails to prevent future political interference in the awarding of grants, safeguard the crucial investment in discovery breakthroughs, and profoundly relieve one of the major stresses on Australia’s research workforce,” STA chief executive Misha Schubert said.
“Shifting to a two-stage application would be a gamechanger for productivity, wellbeing and morale in Australia’s brilliant research workforce, which is why STA has championed this shift for several years.
“It can free up researchers who currently spend hundreds of hours writing full funding applications – when around only one in five of those applications gets funded.”
Universities Australia also welcomed the proposed changes, saying the move to remove the veto power outside of national security concerns “struck the right balance”.
“Past interventions have eroded confidence in our research program and our reputation for research excellence. We have an opportunity now to right those wrongs,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said.
“The panel has acknowledged this and backed a rigorous process with the establishment of an ARC Board with decision-making power on grant funding in response to merit-based recommendations.”
The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering also endorsed the recommendations but said the review missed an opportunity to address a legislated grant announcement timetable or falling research funding.
“ATSE calls on the Australian Government to conduct a broader review of national research funding with an aim to bring total R&D funding to levels comparable with our international competitors, around 3 per cent of GDP,” the group’s chief executive Kylie Walker said.
“The review also fails to address funding the full cost of research, relegating this to the concurrent Universities Accord process. This issue must not be allowed to fall through the gaps. We call on the Universities Accord panel to develop a plan for sufficiently funding the indirect costs of research.
“ATSE is disappointed that the review did not seek to address the uncertainty caused by irregular and unpredictable grant outcome dates. Legislated grant announcement dates would provide greater certainly to researchers – particularly those who are most vulnerable in the system; junior researchers employed on short-term contracts whose careers have been dependent on announcements made at the directive of the serving Minister.”
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