Australian research assessment exercise ‘has achieved purpose’

Funding council reviewer signals intent to recommend ditching ERA, rewriting national interest test and circumscribing veto power

十一月 11, 2022
Rivne, Ukraine - 11 October 2015 Man with a checkered flag finish shows at the Open Cup Speedway to the day of the city Rivne
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Australia’s government faces pressure to abandon the country’s research evaluation exercise, with a key reviewer suggesting that it has done its job.

Former Australian Research Council (ARC) chief executive Margaret Shiel, who has been enlisted to lead a review of the organisation, appears likely to recommend the scrapping of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise.

Professor Sheil, who is now vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, also appears set to urge the government to consider rewriting the controversial “national interest test” (NIT) that governs access to research grants.

And she will argue for a legislative revision to ensure that ministers can only reject ARC grant recommendations in “genuine and extraordinary” circumstances, a newly released consultation paper suggests.

The paper, drafted by Professor Sheil and fellow reviewers Susan Dodds and Mark Hutchinson, seeks feedback on issues ranging from the ARC’s scope, purpose and governance to its grant approval mechanisms and other processes.

While the paper poses open-ended questions, it gives a strong indication of the panel’s thinking about ERA and its companion Engagement and Impact Assessment.

“It can be argued that ERA has achieved its initial purpose and that the time and resources involved may be better redirected to other evaluation needs,” the paper says.

ERA has been “tremendously effective” in shifting the focus of Australian research from “quantity to quality”, but it has no influence on funding and it fosters institutional competition and “counter-productive duplication of expertise”, the paper says.

“Is [there] a need for a highly rigorous, retrospective excellence and impact assessment exercise, particularly in the absence of a link to funding?”

The paper says the “sophisticated evaluation capability” Australia has developed through ERA is a “significant national asset”, but it could be better used to assess the outcomes of the council’s grants and “demonstrate value and excellence of ARC-funded research”.

The panel also says it wants advice on how to “normalise” ministerial acceptance of ARC recommendations and restore the academic community’s “confidence” in grant approval processes, after three former education ministers refused to fund almost two dozen ARC-endorsed research projects in recent years.

Ideally, ministers would only be able to reject funding recommendations for “genuine and extraordinary” reasons which they would be obliged to explain in parliament, the paper suggests.

It also notes “tension and confusion” around the NIT, after the ARC advised funding applicants not to focus their national interest statements exclusively on “benefits to academia”.

The activities funded by the council include “fundamental research that by its very nature may not have a clearly defined application at the outset, beyond adding to global knowledge”, the paper observes.

It acknowledges the desirability of earning “social licence” for taxpayer-funded research, but says “there may be better ways to communicate” research spin-offs.

The paper says applicants for 322 grants have been directed to rewrite their national interest test statements this year, sometimes more than once. In testimony to a Senate estimates committee, ARC chief executive Judi Zielke – who has headed the organisation since February – conceded that she had “requested more revisions” than her predecessor.

Ms Zielke said the ARC had changed its process for assessing national interest statements in March, partly at universities’ request. “The sector had made it very clear that they were looking for more advice on how to better complete the NIT,” she told the committee.



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