Australia winds back national interest test for research grants

Critics claim victory as assessment of research benefits is handed back to the experts

December 1, 2022
A happy Australian male with the Australian Flag, happy that his Team won the 2021 Catamaran Sail GP event held in denmark for the first time in Scandinavia
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Australia’s controversial national interest test (NIT) will be judged by disciplinary experts rather than a civil servant, in a change hailed by universities and researchers.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) has announced that chief executive Judi Zielke will no longer evaluate NIT statements, with that responsibility handed to peer assessors.

NIT statements, plain-English summaries of the intended societal benefits of research projects, are a mandatory part of grant applications to the ARC. Introduced in 2018 amid a furore over an education minister’s refusal to approve grants for humanities research projects recommended by the ARC, each statement was personally assessed by the council’s chief executive.

Critics blame the process for delaying funding rounds by as much as 10 weeks, as hundreds of applicants were directed to rewrite their NIT statements.

Ms Zielke said that the process would be simplified in changes applying from 1 December. She said deputy vice-chancellors at the applicants’ universities would be required to “certify” NIT statements, which would then be considered by expert assessors as part of their evaluation of research proposals.

“The NIT changes will significantly reduce the administrative burden for researchers and universities and will make it clearer, simpler and easier to understand for the public,” Ms Zielke said.

The change comes after education minister Jason Clare directed the ARC to simplify the test, and amid a broader review of the council by Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil.

A campaigner for transparency in research funding processes, who tweets under the pseudonym “ARC Tracker”, said the changes were great news. “Many people worked many hours to push for this – vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, politicians and their staff, journalists, learned societies and peak bodies. Thanks for listening Jason Clare, and for changing it ARC.”

Universities Australia said the changes would “re-establish a system that assesses grants according to merit, judged by experts”.

Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said the change was a “definite improvement and a sign that the government is listening. But there’s still no compelling reason to retain the national interest test at all.

“The test was brought in…without justification. It has further politicised and complicated research funding, and made application processes even more onerous for thousands of researchers.”

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