Alarm at narrow focus of funding

February 8, 2002

The Australian government has generated alarm across the nation's higher education sector by specifying that A$170 million (£61 million) of research funding must go to four priority areas.

Federal education minister Brendan Nelson said "extensive expert consultations" had led to the government's decision to allocate a third of the Australian Research Council grant money to four fields covering nano and bio-materials, genome/phenome research, complex/intelligent systems and photon science and technology.

Australia's academies of science, social sciences and humanities were dismayed at the decision. The Academy of Humanities said its members deplored the exclusive focus on science while other areas also needed urgent funding. The Academy of Science said the decision would have serious deleterious effects on Australian research.

Michael Barber, the academy's secretary for science policy, said the timing of the announcement could not have been worse and that it was not conducive to the development of strong competitive proposals.

"It comes at the very moment researchers across the nation are completing their grant applications to the ARC for submission in March," he said. "The academy is particularly concerned at the timing, the extent of ARC funding affected and the lack of any apparent integration with the activities of other agencies or other government programmes designed to assist innovation."

A spokesman for the Academy of Humanities said that while few would argue with the importance of the four areas, Australia faced other national priorities, including the environment, national heritage and globalisation.

Last year, the ARC was reformed as a statutory body with its own agenda, but any suggestion that it would be independent of the government was dispelled. Although Dr Nelson claimed the government's decision was based on deliberations by the ARC's own expert advisory committees and the ARC board, the council is believed to have recommended allocating 10 per cent of its funding to 12 areas, which included the social sciences and humanities.

Dr Nelson said the government had previously flagged the need for an emphasis on research in which Australia had, or planned to build, competitive advantage. A third of ARC funding in next year's round of grants will be targeted to these priority areas, to support projects and centres for up to five years.

"This funding will enable Australia to focus its research effort on particular areas in which we have world-class, leading-edge capabilities," he said.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee said that by allocating a substantial sum to only four areas, world-class scientists in other fields would miss out.

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