Australia postpones research assessment exercise

National interest test for research grants to be simplified amid sweeping review of ARC

August 30, 2022
Jason Clare

Australia’s government has postponed its research assessment exercise, just weeks after its counterparts in New Zealand took a similar decision.

Plus, Australian education minister Jason Clare has vowed to put an end to grant processing delays and to simplify the national interest test (NIT) that has particularly aggrieved researchers.

Mr Clare has also named the panellists to undertake an independent review of the Australian Research Council (ARC) – the first appraisal of its underpinning legislation “in more than 20 years” – and sent the agency a revised “statement of expectations” directing it to address “problems” with “the way that the current national interest test operates”.

The developments coincide with the ARC’s release of a strategic plan outlining its vision for itself for the rest of the decade, and highlighting its key “priorities” over the next three years.

Addressing the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in Sydney, Mr Clare said he believed that the NIT – which requires funding applicants to produce short, plain-English statements, explaining the societal benefits of their research proposals – was necessary.

“But I also think we need to make it clearer and simpler,” Mr Clare said. “I have asked the ARC to work with universities and researchers to make that happen.”

He said that this work had already begun, with a revised test inserted in the guidelines for a forthcoming round of the Industry Fellowship grant scheme. The panel of expert assessors undertaking the peer review process will assess the national interest test statements, he added.

This appears to be a departure from the current process, whereby NIT statements are assessed by the ARC CEO – a bottleneck that may have contributed to grant processing delays of up to eight weeks.

A research transparency activist known under the Twitter handle “ARC Tracker” questioned the need for the test in the first place.

The activist said researchers were already required to explain the potential benefits of their research in “the main part” of ARC grant applications. “Why fixate on the NIT? It’s a relic, taking up tonnes of everyone’s time, and it will achieve precisely zero improvement in the research or its outcomes.”

Mr Clare’s letter of expectations instructs the ARC to develop “processes and clear guidance that will minimise the workload…associated with the application of the NIT”.

It also relieves the agency of a significant proportion of its own workload, asking it to “discontinue preparations” for next year’s round of Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and develop a “transition plan” to conduct the exercise in 2024 or 2025.

The letter notes the higher education sector’s concern over ERA’s administrative burden and asks the agency to develop a “modern data-driven approach” that “can identify the highest quality university research in Australia, particularly basic research”.

“This would include improved collection and analysis of impact data…so that more robust evaluations of ARC funded programs and initiatives can be undertaken.”

Mr Clare announced that a previously promised review of the ARC would be led by Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil, a former ARC CEO. The review team also includes La Trobe University deputy vice-chancellor Susan Dodds and University of Adelaide immunologist and nanotechnologist Mark Hutchinson, who is president of Science & Technology Australia.

Mr Clare said that the review team had been given “broad” terms of reference and asked to report to him next March.

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