‘Dreadful uncertainty’ plagues Australian researchers

Delays in the name of political PR ‘forcing academics overseas’

November 10, 2019
Source: Getty

Delays in funding announcements are derailing Australian academics’ careers for a second year, as they await the outcomes of major Australian Research Council (ARC) grant schemes.

Results are being drip-fed to applicants via media releases from education minister Dan Tehan and fellow politicians. This is standard procedure for Australian governments, which control information flows about their spending in the hope of extracting political kudos from every grant.

But the delays disrupt institutional planning and upend academics’ careers, according to a researcher who monitors funding developments using the Twitter handle “ARC Tracker”.

“People [spend] November waiting and waiting, without knowing whether they’ve got a job next year,” said the researcher, who asked not to be named.

Scholars, they added, "see the uncertainty and think, this country is not for me. If you want to be a top-notch research country, this is a dreadful way of going about it.”

The situation is not as severe as last year, when grant announcements were withheld until 27 November. Commentators blamed confusion caused by a national interest test introduced following revelations that former education minister Simon Birmingham had vetoed 11 humanities research grants.

But the government took eight weeks to reveal all of this year’s Centres of Excellence grants, and six weeks to outline details of six Industrial Transformation Training Centres. Announcements of Linkage Projects grants stretched from April to October.

Mr Tehan disclosed grants under the Future Fellowships scheme, which is designed to keep promising mid-career researchers in Australia, on 17 October. Questioning by a senate estimates committee revealed that the ARC had sent him its funding recommendations on 28 June.

The roughly 200 grants from another major scheme, the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, are usually announced simultaneously. But just five grants, all for projects at Griffith University, were revealed on 5 November. ARC Tracker tweeted that this year’s outcomes were being revealed piecemeal by local MPs.

In a 5 November blog, ARC Tracker said announcement dates should be specified in advance. This would end “months of needless, secret delays” without requiring Mr Tehan to pass legislation, provide additional funding or relinquish his approval rights.

Mr Tehan’s office would not say whether he was considering this measure. But his spokeswoman said he had arranged for the ARC to advise universities of grant outcomes before the official announcements, under embargo. “This will provide universities and researchers with greater certainty,” she said.

The estimates committee heard that universities had been given the results of Future Fellowships applications three weeks before they were publicly announced. However, many universities delayed telling their academics, apparently out of fear of breaking the ARC’s “strict embargo”.

The estimates committee also heard that the new national interest test was causing uncertainty, with the minister able to apply the test selectively. The committee’s deputy chairwoman, Louise Pratt, asked whether the test would “justify the minister picking and choosing…projects on political whims”.

Ms Pratt also suggested that rather than rejecting grant applications outright, the minister could simply fail to make decisions about them.

Mr Tehan’s office did not comment on either suggestion, but said ministers had always had discretion over whether to approve ARC grants. The ARC said Mr Tehan had approved all its funding recommendations to date.


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