The legislation underpinning $800 million in annual research funding will be reviewed for the first time in two decades later this year, with a three-person panel to conduct the inquiry and report to government by March.
In what is shaping to be an overhaul of the Australian Research Council (ARC), the new Labor government has also put a temporary hold on the three-yearly national assessment of the quality of university research it administers and directed the agency to align its $326 million industry-research collaboration program with Labor’s plan to rebuild the nation’s industrial base.
The government is also considering legislating or regulating the announcement of grant outcomes to a set timetable after growing complaints about delays stymying Australian research.
The controversial National Interest Test contributing to the delays, and which has helped Coalition ministers veto grants, will remain but be simplified.
On Tuesday, Education minister Jason Clare provided more details on the review into the Australian Research Council Act he announced last month in response to delays and grants vetoes from political and bureaucratic interference.
The review has wide terms of reference including ARC governance and management functions, and notes the current legislation “does not reflect the range of functions now being undertaken” by the agency.
“Delays and political interference damage our international reputation and make it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff,” Mr Clare said at the AFR Higher Education Summit on Tuesday.
He announced the review will be led by Queensland University of Technology vice chancellor and former ARC chief executive Professor Margaret Sheil.
She will be joined by University of Adelaide and Science and Technology Australia president Professor Mark Hutchinson, and La Trobe University senior deputy-vice chancellor and vice-president (research & industry engagement) and ARC advisory committee member Professor Susan Dodds.
Mr Clare has also provided a new letter of expectations to the agency, demanding grant processing be streamlined, decisions delivered on time to a pre-determined timeline, and the “administrative burden” on researchers be reduced.
The letter asks for advice on any regulatory or legislative changes needed to ensure the grants are delivered on time.
Mr Clare backed the retention of the controversial National Interest Test introduced by the Coalition in 2018 but wants it to be “clearer, simpler and easily understood”.
The NIT requires applicants to include a statement explaining the extent to which the research contributes to Australia’s national interest through its potential economic, commercial, environmental, social or cultural benefits.
This has slowed the assessment process, with applicants often asked to reword it, while some discovery research areas like the previous breakthroughs behind WiFi and mRNA can’t necessarily articulate the immediate benefit of their work.
The test has also been used as a way for Education minister to veto otherwise recommended research projects on the grounds it does not satisfy their interpretation of the national interest.
In his letter of expectations, Mr Clare directs the ARC to develop processes and clear guidance for the NIT to minimise the workload for the research sector, a burden that is commonly known as ‘nitpicking’.
“I know the way the current National Interest Test operates is causing problems,” Mr Clare said at the summit.
“When Brian Schmidt, the Vice Chancellor of ANU, tells you the research he did that won him the Noble Prize wouldn’t qualify under the current test, you know you have to make some changes.”
The new minister also wants the role of the National Manufacturing Priorities in the Linkage Program to be replaced by priorities aligned to the new government’s $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.
The $326.5 million program, which includes ARC Centres of Excellence and Linkage Projects, was changed last year to align most Linkage funding with the then-Coalition government’s six National Manufacturing Priorities and research commercialisation agenda.
Mr Clare has asked they be changed again to “priorities aligned to” Labor’s vision to rebuild Australia’s industrial base through a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund, and for the Linkage grant process be reviewed to “drive more focused and scaled investment in key national challenges”.
The National Reconstruction Fund has so far been slated for areas of Australia’s “natural and competitive strengths” like resources and agriculture, transport, medical science, renewables and low emission technologies, defence and enabling capabilities like emerging and digital technologies.
Mr Clare also announced the upcoming Excellence in Research Assessment (ERA) next year be discontinued. The three-yearly ERA is used to compare Australia’s university research against international benchmarks, creating incentives to improve the quality of research.
The current method will be replaced by a “modern data driven approach to the ERA, informed by peer review” to begin in 2024, Mr Clare said.
The announcements by Mr Clare were welcomed by university and research groups.
The Group of Eight (Go8) universities, representing research intensive universities that take nearly 70 per cent of all ARC funding allocations, said the review was timely.
“The ARC should be underpinned by modern legislation that ensures that it is fit for purpose and has the governance structures in place to provide expert advice and oversight to the ARC CEO and the Minister,” Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said.
“There must be an explicit recognition of the role and responsibility of the ARC as the primary funder of non-medical basic research in Australia. As noted by Education Minister Jason Clare in his speech to the AFR Higher Education Summit, inventions such as WiFi and the understanding and use of mRNA technology were the result of basic research without these end goals in mind”.
Science and Technology Australia president professor Mark Hutchinson, who is on the three-person review panel, said it would consult widely about how the ARC can “be even more effective in its role”.
“The research landscape and the roles of researchers are dynamic and continuously evolving. It is vital our funding schemes are equally agile to deliver more secure research careers, support great ideas, and develop products and services rapidly,” professor Hutchinson said.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the review will be fundamental to reaching the right policy settings to help maintain Australia’s standing in the global research environment.
“Australia needs a research council with strong governance, robust peer review and genuine transparency at its core,” Ms Jackson said
“It is particularly pleasing to see issues with the National Interest Test, that were causing significant delay and uncertainty, addressed directly by the minister in his refreshed expectations letter to the ARC CEO. We look forward to seeing the issues resolved.”
A Senate inquiry in March recommended an independent review of the ARC after repeated interference by Coalition Education minister’s in funding decisions and complaints about the administration at the agency.
The inquiry was launched in the wake of the latest scandal around then-acting Education minister Stuart Robert’s decision to reject $1.38 million in funding for six humanities projects the ARC had recommended late last year.
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