CSIRO’s chief operating officer Judi Zielke has been appointed acting chief executive of the Australian Research Council (ARC) in a move away from the academic experience of previous leaders at the agency responsible for around $800 million of research funding each year.
The move, announced quietly on Monday night with few details, has raised concerns about whether the long-time public servant can resolve immediate issues like funding delays and disquiet over ministerial grant vetoes at the council.
Ms Zielke fills the role vacated by professor Sue Thomas, who stood down five months early from a full five-year term at the Australian Research Council shortly after a new letter of “expectations” from the acting Education Minister Stuart Robert in December and amid unprecedented delays to funding announcements.
CSIRO’s chief finance officer Mr Tom Munyard will be acting as the agency’s chief operating officer during Ms Zielke’s time at the ARC.
Update: a spokesperson for the ARC confirmed Ms Zielke had been appointed by acting Education minister Stuart Robert while the search for the new ARC CEO is conducted.
“Applications for the position are expected to open on 4 February and close 27 February 2022 via the Australian Public Service (APS) Gazette, the ARC website and major national newspapers,” the ARC spokesperson said.
UNSW laureate fellow and Scientia professor of artificial intelligence Toby Walsh said the new acting chief executive’s administrative background could be an asset to the agency which is experiencing long delays and giving applicants vague timetables.
But the role should ultimately be filled by someone with a “strong research background”.
“The challenges that the ARC has faced are because they have not understood the academic and the research community very well. I think we’re going backwards,” he told InnovationAus.
Ms Zielke is a public servant who held senior roles in Trade, the Attorney General’s department, Industry and Innovation and Infrastructure, and is responsible for the science agency’s finance, property, governance and corporate affairs.
The CSIRO executive joins the ARC as it faces controversy about the government’s intervention to block funding for some of the research projects it approved late last year.
Minister Stuart Robert vetoed the grants on Christmas Eve, claiming they were a waste of taxpayers’ money not in the national interest, leading to backlash across the research community and accusations of political interference in the agency.
Professor Andrew Francis is a Western Sydney University mathematics expert among the college of experts that condemned the interference.
He said the appointment of a CSIRO executive appeared to align with the government’s recent direction to the ARC to give more consideration to industry and research end users. But a respect for the wider role of research and a vision for how it should be supported will also help the new chief executive to improve the ARC.
“The question I think many will have is the extent to which those other aspects – the vision and the awareness and respect for the diversity and value of research across the board – are going to be present in any CEO of the ARC,” Professor Francis told InnovationAus.
“It’s a tough role and I’d certainly wish the acting CEO the best in the job, and the handling of the many matters that will be on her desk right from the outset.”
Peak group Science and Technology Australia (STA) welcomed the appointment of Ms Zielke but called for the agency to address its current delay in announcing dates for Australia’s main research funding programs.
“The research community is awaiting dates for the delayed Discovery Projects and the Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities grant rounds due to start in 2023.” STA chief executive Misha Schubert said.
“In the normal course of events, Discovery Project dates would have been announced last October and applications expected to close at the end of February.
“We would also encourage the ARC to tackle these delays once and for all – by shifting to fixed timetables for grant applications and announcements.”
This article has been updated to include comments from the ARC and to correct the acting chief operating officer arrangements at the CSIRO.
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