Inadequate funds, not substandard proposals, are to blame for Australian researchers’ woefully low grant success rates. But administrative tweaks could help, a parliamentary committee has been told.
A new analysis of Web of Science metrics has concluded that Australian researchers have dramatically boosted their productivity over the past decade, proving that wholesale changes to research funding are “not warranted”.
The analysis was conducted by the Innovative Research Universities group, as part of its submission to a House of Representatives inquiry into research funding arrangements. The IRU found that Australian academics had more than doubled their output of journal articles and other research publications in the 10 years to 2016.
This compared with increases of less than 50 per cent in the US and the UK. It did not simply reflect growth in Australia’s research workforce, with academics’ average output rising by about 50 per cent.
The quality of this work also improved, the analysis found, with the proportion of highly cited research increasing by about 19 per cent. Publications were cited 37 per cent more often than the global average – up from 17 per cent a decade earlier – equalling Canada’s strike rate and overtaking that of the US.
Australia now produces roughly 4 per cent of the world’s scientific output despite having just 0.3 per cent of the population and 1.6 per cent of the global economy, the IRU said.
“The trends in Australia’s research performance are overwhelmingly positive,” said executive director Conor King. “They point towards greater productivity [and] impact despite minimal increases to government block grants for research.”
The committee is looking for ways to overcome “fragmentation and inefficiency” in research funding. Education minister Simon Birmingham, who commissioned the inquiry, said that enormous effort was expended on grant applications – of which about 80 per cent proved unsuccessful.
“Researchers and their partners in universities, industry and the wider community spend significant time, energy and resources to apply, whilst significant taxpayer infrastructure is used in assessment,” Mr Birmingham said in a letter to committee chairman Andrew Laming.
The IRU said that, while researchers spent weeks on funding applications, grant writing and peer review were “necessary ingredients of a highly competitive research system”.
“Unsuccessful grant applications are part of this process, and not all should be considered time wasted,” the submission says. “Near-miss projects may be revised into future successful proposals or repurposed for other schemes.”
The submission offers six tips for improving administrative efficiency. They include starting the grant application process with relatively simple expressions of interest, which would allow reviewers to screen out less promising projects, and halving the frequency of major assessment exercises such as Excellence in Research for Australia.
But the IRU’s submission also advocates measures to increase overall research funding, such as enforcing a minimum grant success rate of 25 per cent with an “aspirational” target of 50 per cent. “The low rate is primarily driven by the level of funding allocated to these schemes, rather than research quality and value,” it says.
Umbrella group Universities Australia has also pressed the government to increase research funding by lifting the cap on university teaching grants and abandoning plans to mothball a A$3.8 billion (£2.1 billion) research infrastructure scheme called the Education Investment Fund.
The Group of Eight network wants the government to improve the tax incentive that businesses attract for collaborating with universities on research and development.