Australian universities fear ‘grand challenges’ research focus

Response to row over vetoing of humanities grants could result in curiosity-driven scholarship being pushed out

November 5, 2018
People stop a gazebo from blowing away
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Off-course thinking: ‘If a project has merit, it can be funded by the university or from the private sector,’ said Dan Tehan

Australian universities fear that research funding in the country could be monopolised by national “grand challenges” in the wake of the row over the vetoing of humanities grants, forcing them to find industry backers for curiosity-driven research or to bankroll it themselves.

As he announced that publicly funded research would have to pass a new “national interest” test, Dan Tehan, the education minister, signalled that grants might increasingly be directed towards designated “Science and Research Priorities”, including food, energy and cybersecurity. The nine priority areas were first identified three years ago to ensure that issues critical to Australia’s future received adequate research attention.

In an apparent throwaway line, Mr Tehan appeared to suggest that researchers focusing their efforts elsewhere could expect little government support. “Government funding is only one source of research funding,” he said.

“If a project has merit, it can also be funded directly by the university, from the private sector or other non-government sources.”

The changes are the government’s response to intense criticism over former education minister Simon Birmingham’s secret vetoing of funding for 11 humanities research projects.

Commentators have ridiculed the new provision as a face-saving measure that will add unnecessary paperwork to the time-consuming process of applying for research grants, given that national interest criteria are already included.

Andrew Norton, higher education director at the Grattan Institute, said that the research grant system had developed at a time when the federal government bankrolled most research, but recent figures suggest that the commonwealth now underwrites barely one-third of university research spending.

“Perhaps we are at a point when the commonwealth can focus its attention on priorities it thinks would not be funded independently by universities, and leave the rest for universities to decide without any input from Canberra,” Mr Norton said.

Mr Tehan said that he had instructed the Australian Research Council’s chief executive, Sue Thomas, to review the Science and Research Priorities and examine “whether the financial structure of the ARC grants fit[s] the national priorities”.

Mr Norton said that the priority areas did not seem to attract favourable treatment in grant allocations. An ARC report on this year’s Discovery Projects grant scheme found that research proposals in priority areas had lower average success rates than other types of proposals.

While that could be because the priorities attract more applications of “lower average quality”, Mr Norton said, it may have motivated Mr Tehan’s review of the grants’ financial structure.

The Group of Eight, which represents Australia’s leading research universities, said that the term “national interest” was subjective and could be judged according to political whim. Chief executive Vicki Thomson said that grant approval processes “must not limit our ability to produce the great breakthrough discoveries”.

“Research that can seem irrelevant can provide the missing piece that helps us take a great leap forward later,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Could ‘grand challenges’ spell end of blue skies

Reader's comments (1)

Can we stop saying 'curiosity-driven' research and just call it what it is .... research. 'Curiosity-driven' is a dog whistle for arts and humanities research that zealous instrumentalists inside and outside of universities neither understand nor appreciate. And isn't all research driven by curiosity anyway?

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