More grant delays loom for Australian researchers

With key funding scheme already months behind schedule, a Christmas Eve resolution could be optimistic

January 30, 2022
Line waiting for Palace of Versailles
Source: iStock

Australia’s central research agency has indefinitely postponed three funding schemes, a sign that the unprecedented delays to last year’s grants may recur.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is yet to reveal when it will begin accepting applications for the coming rounds of the Discovery Projects, Linkage Projects and Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) programmes.

Applications for Discovery normally open in November or early December and close in February or March. This frees researchers to prepare funding submissions during the summer months when most classes are in abeyance.

But the ARC postponed Discovery processing about a week before applications were scheduled to open on 10 November last year. It has now deferred applications for LIEF, which are usually lodged from January.

No new opening date has been announced for either scheme. Similar uncertainty applies to Linkage Projects, which is normally processed in three batches, with the first applications accepted from December.

The ARC said guidelines for all three schemes were still under development. “Revisions will enhance the national interest test and increase its transparency,” the council said, suggesting that the delays may be related to acting education minister Stuart Robert’s mid-December demand for a “strengthening” of the test.

As the ARC’s main support programme for basic research, Discovery is a lifeline for many academics on fixed-term contracts. Funding from the scheme can safeguard their jobs for up to five years, but success rates usually languish below 20 per cent.

Katherine Christian, a visiting fellow at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), said job insecurity was “overwhelmingly” the main problem confronting early and mid-year academics. Low grant success rates were largely to blame, and delays in processing grants just made things worse.

“You spend a third of your year writing grant applications [to] find out whether you’ve got a job on the first of January,” she said. “The wasted effort and the stress that goes with it, right down to the Christmas Eve delivery of bad news – it’s so wrong.”

Dr Christian’s study of more than 650 early career researchers found that job insecurity left about half dissatisfied with their work, with four in five considering major career changes. She is now recruiting subjects for a follow-up survey.

Administrative and political hitches in the processing of this year’s Discovery grants meant that some 3,100 applicants did not learn their fate until the day before Christmas – at least six weeks later than usual, and barely a week before the money was due to start flowing – even though they had lodged their applications between 10 and 13 months earlier.

With the forthcoming round already some 11 weeks behind schedule, its finalisation could be even later. Dr Christian’s co-researcher, QUT biomedical engineer Mike Doran, said he was “hopeful” that the ARC could “right the ship” despite the delay.

Dr Doran said this round would not be hampered by the preprints issue that had disrupted ARC activities last year. But he said the council could “mitigate” researchers’ anxiety by conducting multiple Discovery rounds – a routine approach overseas, and current ARC practice with Linkage Projects. “When you’re hoping that the dice are going to roll double sixes, and you only have one shot a year, that must be amplifying the stress,” he said.

The delays have emerged amid a leadership vacuum in the ARC, with chief executive Sue Thomas stepping down on 31 January, six months before her contract’s expiry. The agency said it would announce an interim leader “shortly”.


Print headline: More research grant delays loom in Australia

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs