Lives rearranged as Australian funder NIT-picks

Grant delays worse than ever, researchers say, as ARC strives to meet demands of ousted government

August 30, 2022
nitpick find fault micromanage
Source: istock

Antipodean researchers say grant processing delays have lengthened as the administering agency demands multiple rewrites of national interest test (NIT) statements in funding applications.

The NIT requires academics to produce plain-English statements, typically less than 150 words, that explain the societal benefits of research proposals to non-academic audiences. It was introduced in 2018 amid a furore over a minister’s rejection of 11 humanities research projects recommended for funding by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Researchers said the test was unnecessary, with applicants already required to explain how their research projects furthered national interests. Nevertheless, then acting education minister Stuart Robert instructed the ARC to extend and enhance the test, and let “industry and other end-user experts” assess it, in a “letter of expectations” to the agency last December.

The NIT assessment process now consumes an extra six weeks or so as the ARC engages in “ridiculous nitpicking”, according to a transparency activist known under the Twitter handle “ARC Tracker”.

“The one or two months it has added [can be] crucial for people’s careers,” said the activist, who estimated that Future Fellowships funding had been delayed by an extra eight weeks. Discovery Early Career Researcher Award grants had been held back by about six weeks and the recent announcement of 61 Linkage Projects grants had arrived about 10 weeks late. “People have been sitting around twiddling their thumbs and telling industry partners to wait.”

Australian Institute of Physics president Sven Rogge, who criticised the delays in an open letter, recounted stories of members being “warned that this is the last time” after the ARC had returned NITs for multiple rewrites.

He said he could not understand the criticism of “perfectly fine” statements he had read in colleagues’ grant proposals. “I think the ARC is trying to satisfy the last government.”

The ARC acknowledged an increase in NIT statements being returned for “redrafting”, but said all funding decisions announced since May had been revealed within published timeframes.

Education minister Jason Clare said his own letter of expectations to the ARC would be finalised “shortly” and that his promised review of the ARC would complement the agency’s internal appraisal of its administrative processes. He was due to address a higher education conference in Sydney on 30 August.

Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said the minister should immediately “nullify” Mr Robert’s letter of expectations. “There is no need to await the outcome of the ARC review to take this step,” she said in a letter to Mr Clare. His office did not say whether he would meet this request.

A Singapore-based associate professor, who applied for a Future Fellowship last December in the hope that it would facilitate his return to his native Australia, said he had expected an answer well before July. But with no word from the ARC, his wife had applied for a new job.

“She’ll be starting in a week,” said the academic, who asked not to be named. “I wanted to say, don’t accept yet because we might be moving back to Australia. But I couldn’t say that because I don’t know [when] it’s going to be announced.”

He said things could be worse. “I have a job. This [Future Fellowship] would just be a better job.” But the grant proposal also included funding for a postdoctoral fellow. “He’s left the profession and become a public servant. He can’t be waiting around [to hear about] a temporary job.”

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