A year on from the political interference scandal that rocked the Australian Research Council, university and research groups are backing an overhaul of the agency, recommending better governance, clearer guidance, and more equitable investments.
While there is wide support for improved governance and administration at the Australian Research Council (ARC), groups are also highlighting individual issues which could be addressed through the current review being run in conjunction with the wider Universities Accord.
The Australian Technology Network of universities (ATN) – representing six impact focused universities – is questioning the flow of ARC research grants to Australia’s sandstones.
“Each year for the last 18 years, six universities have shared over 50 per cent of total funding distributed by ARC leaving the remaining shared amongst 31 other public universities and other organisations,” the ATN submission to the ARC review said.
It recommends the ARC fund research “excellence wherever it occurs” by using new targets, including gender and equity outcomes, and more rewards for effective interdisciplinary collaboration, while improving fairness and participation in the research workforce.
Universities Australia, the peak group representing 39 comprehensive universities, called for the legislation underpinning the ARC to be amended to clarify the scope of the research it funds and for a form of the Haldane Principle to be added to the Act.
The Haldane Principle is the concept that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review. While the ARC makes recommendations in this way, it is a government minister that ultimately approves the funding.
This opens the potential for an effective veto of research funding by the minister. The option was used last December by then-acting Education minister Stuart Robert. The veto of six projects based on their brief “National Interest’ statements attracted fierce criticism to Mr Robert and the ARC, and was a driver of the current review.
Universities Australia wants the veto power written out of the ARC Act. But knowing the Labor government has also ruled this out, the group is calling for a new requirement for any use of the power to be formally explained to Parliament in its submission.
The Group of Eight (Go8), whose eight members undertake 70 per cent of Australia’s university-based research, also backs the removal of the veto and, if not, reasons for its use being quickly tabled to Parliament.
The Go8 also called for stronger governance through a new government appointed ARC Board, including an independent chair and representation by senior academic, industry and public representatives to provide advice to the agency’s chief executive.
This layer of governance should be codified into the Act, to ensure it is not abused or removed by the government of the day, Go8 recommended.
The Regional University Network (RUN) called for the ARC to take on a research advocacy role and conduct more “meaningful” engagement with its member institutions, like Southern Cross, Charles Sturt and New England universities.
It also wants a less burdensome application process for the smaller universities, proposing a two-step ARC funding application system be trialled by the agency to try and reduce the “unnecessary or complex administrative procedures currently tied to research grant application processes”.
Science and Technology Australia, representing more than 100,000 scientists and technologists, is calling for the ARC Act to specify the division of funding between its major Discovery and Linkage programs, recommending a respective 60-40 split.
STA also wants the ARC’s annual funding determinations “pegged” to the size of the Australian research sector, so the pool grows with it.
“It is not tenable to expect Australian researchers to simply do more with less in an already competitive and constrained budget context for research,” its submission said.
The group also wants the ARC Act amended to give more clarity on the limits of the work it funds.
The change should reflect that the ARC should not broadly fund medical research, instead leaving this area to the Medical Research Council and Medical Research Future Fund, which each have a similar grant pool to the ARC.
“A clearer policy would be of great benefit to both researchers and industry,” the STA submission said.
“We are aware of cases where researchers have had ARC grant applications ruled ineligible because part of the proposal was deemed to include elements of medical research.”
The ARC Review Panel will provide the Minister for Education Jason Clare with an interim report by the end of the year and a final report by the end of March 2023.
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