Two-step grant applications ‘will transform’ Australian research

Canberra also confirms plans to overhaul research assessment exercise and ‘take the politics out’ of grant decisions

August 22, 2023
Beachgoers ride on inflatables with some waiting to go into the sea in Sydney, Australia to illustrate Two-step grant applications ‘will transform’ Australian research
Source: Getty Images

Australia will introduce a two-stage process for research grant applications in a move that could save the country’s harried academics thousands of hours of wasted effort.

The federal government has commissioned the Australian Research Council (ARC) to develop a “two-step” application process as a way of “reducing the administrative burden” on academic and research institutions.

The idea is one of 10 recommendations from a review of the ARC Act, which was announced at last year’s Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit. Addressing this year’s summit in Melbourne, education minister Jason Clare said the government had “agreed or agreed in principle” to all 10 recommendations.

Under the two-step proposal, research teams in search of funding would be asked to submit short “expressions of interest” of up to five pages each. Grant assessors would conduct “rapid initial” appraisals to determine whether they met eligibility criteria and had reasonable prospects of success, with only a fraction of teams asked to submit full proposals.

Representative group Science & Technology Australia said the proposal would be “transformative” for researchers’ productivity and well-being. “Hundreds of hours of researcher time every year [goes] into writing applications, [with] only one in five…able to be funded,” said CEO Misha Schubert.

“You’ve got 100 per cent of those people spending time on full-blown applications. That is crazy in productivity terms.”

She said a two-stage process would spare applicants “who haven’t got a chance” from “hanging on results of funding rounds for months and months”.

Gwilym Croucher, a higher education and research policy expert at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, said academics often bemoaned the “lost summer holidays” spent lodging unsuccessful grant applications. He said that, although the application process helped researchers “sharpen” their ideas, the time could be better spent.

“A lot of that energy and effort…could probably be directed elsewhere, not just in doing some sorts of preliminary studies, but also in seeking other sources of funding.”

Dr Croucher said the government’s announcement enabled the ARC to study grant application processes in other countries. “There’s the opportunity to learn from systems that are focused on quality proposals, and then assess things like track record and capacity to deliver as a separate part of the process,” he said.

The government has also committed to “take the politics out” of grant processes that have become “bedevilled by political interference and ministerial delays”, with Mr Clare vowing “to end the days of ministers vetoing things” because “they didn’t like the title”.

He said education ministers would be able to forbid the ARC from granting funds only in instances where national security risks had been identified. And while ministers would set grant guidelines, these would take the form of “disallowable” legislative instruments. “This means that any future minister who seeks to use the ARC as their own political plaything will be subject to the scrutiny of the parliament,” he added.

The government has also agreed in principle to discontinue the national research quality and impact assessments, saying Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and the Engagement and Impact (EI) assessment will not continue in their current forms.

Mr Clare said he had asked the Universities Accord panel to include a recommendation for a new model of research performance measurement in its final report, which is due in December.

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