ARC chief steps down as industry given say in research funding

Canberra demands revamped governance and more applied focus

December 14, 2021
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Australia’s central research funding agency is seeking a new leader, after the federal government ordered an overhaul of its governance and told it to give industry a role in assessing grant applications.

Australian Research Council (ARC) chief executive Sue Thomas will step down from the role at the end of January, five months before her contract expires. The news emerged eight days after a letter of expectation from the acting education minister, Stuart Robert, directed Professor Thomas to complete four key reforms next year.

They include funnelling more money to applied research. Forty per cent of ARC funding is to be earmarked for the Linkage Programme, which supports research with non-university partners, with at least 70 per cent of this allocation quarantined for the government’s manufacturing priorities of defence, space, resources technology, food and beverages, clean energy and medical products.

Mr Robert also instructed Professor Thomas to fast-track the implementation of recommendations from the review of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and Engagement and Impact (El) assessment exercises. And he asked that a “designated committee” be re-established “to support you in your role as CEO”.

The committee will help “align the ARC strategic agenda with government priorities, improve governance and drive innovation” in research funding and impact assessment, he said.

The ARC declined to comment on Professor Thomas’ decision to step down. It comes after the agency infuriated researchers with grant delays and the turmoil caused by a now rescinded ban on citing preprints in funding applications.

The council has also been slow to reform the widely criticised research assessment exercises, and its work has been subject to political interference including ministerial grant vetoes and the revelation that it was “keeping files” on academics. Meanwhile ARC funding has flatlined, with the real value of its grants declining some 19 per cent over the past seven years.

UNSW Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Nick Fisk said that reforms to the ERA and EI needed to be expedited, and an updating of the council’s governance arrangements was overdue. “This is timely because the ARC was in danger of going off the rails,” he said.

Professor Fisk said there was a risk that the new Linkage funding formula could induce academics in fields such as business, arts, social sciences and law to artificially orient their research around national manufacturing priorities. But he noted the minister’s acknowledgment of the importance of basic research funded under the Discovery Projects scheme. The new arrangements will shift funding towards applied research by only about 3 percentage points, he said.

Mr Robert has also asked for “industry and other end-user experts” to be given a role in determining the national interest test (NIT) applied to funding applications. He also wants to include such people in the ARC College of Experts which assesses grant applications and recommends which should be funded.

Professor Fisk said it was natural for the government to seek value from taxpayer-funded research. But he warned against giving end users a gatekeeping role. “We don’t want a multilayered process, where you have industry and end users assessing the NIT in isolation before it goes to the minister, but after expert review.”

One social media critic branded the proposal “colonisation by business”. Another said it replaced peer review with a process combining “wider expertise” with “whatever instructions the appointees get from the minister”.

Another academic said some of the measures the government had demanded seemed sensible, but questioned the timetable for the new arrangements. “Why the rush? And what about consulting with the sector? Have we learnt nothing from the preprint issue?”

A research commentator who tweets under the title “ARC Tracker” said Professor Thomas could have resigned over many issues, to send a signal that the ARC was being interfered with or undermined by the government. “But her departure now will be perceived as due to her performance.”

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering said “genuinely novel research” could be discouraged if researchers were forced to outline how the practical outcomes of their work aligned with Australia’s national interest. “It’s…critical that the involvement of industry experts in research assessment does not inhibit curiosity-led research,” said chief executive Kylie Walker.

Robert Phiddian, former director of the Australasian Consortium of Humanities Researchers and Centres, said that the proposals risked “short-termism” and politicisation of research funding. “If this is a lever for more political interference in – as opposed to appropriate public accountability for – research allocations, we would be far better off leaving decisions to those with deep knowledge in the sectors.”

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