No blanket funding application extensions, Australian researchers told

ARC balances acknowledgement of disruptions with need to keep future funds flowing

March 23, 2020
deadlines overwork overload bureaucracy administration
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Australia’s principle research funding body is maintaining a business-as-usual approach to funding grant applications, despite researchers’ pleas for deadlines to be relaxed in light of the coronavirus.

But the Australian Research Council (ARC) has extended reporting deadlines for previously funded researchers. And CEO Sue Thomas has promised grant applicants that the agency will be “flexible and generous”.

In a 23 March update, Professor Thomas said the ARC was following the usual processes for applications, allowing researchers to apply for “short extensions” in view of exceptional circumstances. It followed an earlier communiqué explaining that institutions which had been “directly affected” by the coronavirus must formally request extra time in advance.

The announcement attracted a Twitter backlash. “Everyone’s career will be interrupted,” scoffed a Sydney sociology professor. “Change your policies and procedures accordingly.”

Academics were flat out reconfiguring their teaching programmes as universities progressively moved online, researchers pointed out. This was cutting the time they could spend on preliminary tasks needed to give their grant applications a fighting chance.

It was increasingly difficult for researchers to convince partner organisations to sign off on linkage grant applications, others added, while the anxiety caused by the coronavirus was “not helping their productivity”.

But some researchers pointed out that longer deadlines would defer the next round of grants, particularly harming academics employed short-term. “What’s the middle road?” an Adelaide history professor asked. “We don’t want to indirectly disadvantage the very people losing work because of the issues with casual teaching.”

Professor Thomas said the ARC was “adjusting our contingency plans” as the landscape changed. “At this stage we are not moving to longer or blanket extensions because of the cumulative impact this will have on the necessary peer review processes and being able to commence funding in the future.”

Similar debates are playing out overseas, with some US researchers asked to justify missed deadlines. The National Institutes of Health says it will consider late applications on a case-by-case basis, while other researchers are given blanket extensions.

The European Research Council and UK Research and Innovation also signalled that they would consider extension requests case-by-case. Irish funders have flagged a “pragmatic approach”, while France’s National Agency for Research has deferred its deadlines by two months.

Professor Thomas said the ARC had decided to conduct selection advisory committee meetings by video conference rather than face to face. It has also extended funded groups’ progress report deadlines by two months, with final reports automatically granted three-month extensions on request.

She acknowledged that circumstances were changing rapidly, and “we may come to the point that our planned ways of doing things are not possible”.

A higher education policy analyst, who asked not to be named, said that day would come soon if the government imposed a “more stringent lockdown” that forced universities to nominate their non-essential research.

“If two-thirds of the research workforce is told to stop what you’re doing and go home, the ARC is going to have to take that into account because it’s going to interrupt people’s access to libraries and various other systems.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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