Tech leaders on powerful new ARC board

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Two tech and innovation leaders have been appointed to the new Australian Research Council (ARC) board taking responsibility for around $800 million in annual research grants from the government of the day.

Deep tech incubator Sally-Ann Williams and Pawsey Supercomputing Centre chief Mark Stickells have secured two of the eight spots on the board that will soon have final say on competitive research grants.

The board will be chaired by Professor Peter Shergold, an economist, former university chancellor and top mandarin, with philosopher Professor and La Tribe University Professor Emerita Susan Dodds as vice chair.

Cicada Innovations chief executive Sally-Ann Williams

The board has been established in response to a wholesale review of the Australian Research Council that recommended the Education minister be removed from the final decisions on competitive research grants except in limited national security and international relations circumstances.

Vetoes of otherwise approved grants by Coalition ministers had put the issue in the spotlight and attracted widespread criticism when then-acting Education minister Stuart Robert rejected half a dozen on national interest grounds in late 2021.

The review of the agency ordered by the incoming Albanese government in 2022 recommended an independent board be established to take responsibility for the decisions out of the government’s hands.

Education minister Jason Clare passed legislation for the changes in March and on Wednesday revealed the new board, saying it puts and end to “the days of Ministers using the ARC as a political plaything”.

“Over the last decade, the ARC has been bedeviled by political interference and Ministerial delays,” Mr Clare said.

“That has made it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff, and it has damaged our international reputation.”

New chair Professor Peter Shergold served as a secretary in the Australian Public Service for two decades, including leading the Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Education, Science and Training. More recently he was Chancellor of Western Sydney University.

The two non-professors on the ARC board are both deeply involved in Australian technology and innovation.

Ms Williams runs Sydney deep tech accelerators Cicada Innovations and has also led the advice to the Albanese government on STEM diversity reforms.

Mr Stickells is chief executive of the Pawsey Supercomputing centre in Perth and a member of the federal government’s quantum advisory committee.

The board will be supported by two advisory committees to provide guidance on ARC priorities and strategies: the ARC Advisory Committee and a new ARC Indigenous Forum.

In the lead up to the bill that brings in the changes at the ARC, stakeholders had warned the board’s small size would make it difficult to represent the diverse research sector and hand power to to few individuals. Amendments to the bill expanded the size from five to the current seven plus a chair.

The Coalition voted against the move to a board, claiming the removal of ministerial responsibility could allow the ARC board to go “on a frolic” and approve grants “irresponsibly”.

The Education minister retains the power to approve other research funding, including nationally significant investments that foster research capability for Australia like the ARC Centres of Excellence, Industrial Transformation Research Hubs, and Industrial Transformation Training Centres.

The full ARC Board:

  • Professor Peter Shergold (Chair)
  • Professor Susan Dodds (Deputy Chair)
  • Distinguished Professor Maggie Walter
  • Professor Cindy Shannon
  • Professor Paul Wellings
  • Emeritus Professor Margaret Harding
  • Mr Mark Stickells
  • Ms Sally-Ann Williams

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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