Scepticism of Australian research grant assessment won’t be quelled anytime soon

Australia’s twice-unlucky research grant applicants raise questions about the assessment process, but they could help elevate science as an election issue, says John Ross

November 28, 2018
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In early 2017, Queensland sociologist Sarah Baker applied for a grant to explore the idea of harnessing communities’ musical heritage to help them recover from industrial decline.

The feedback from the assessment panel, she says, was “very positive”. Late in the year, the Australian Research Council informed the Griffith University professor that her application had been unsuccessful – but only just.

It had been ranked among the top 10 per cent of unfunded projects, she was told. Encouraged, Baker tried again. She adapted her proposal in line with suggestions from the reviewers and improved the stakeholder advisory board so that it included a former deputy premier of South Australia, people from local and state government and a representative from the National Film and Sound Archive.

So when she received negative reports from this year’s reviewers, it was a surprise. Then, in late October, Baker learned that her 2017 application had been recommended for funding, but education minister Simon Birmingham had overruled the advice. It was one of 11 proposals vetoed by Mr Birmingham because he did not think that they had sufficient merit.

Ironically, it would have investigated community renewal in his home state of South Australia. The project would have focused on the northern Adelaide manufacturing hub of Elizabeth – an area that has produced some of Australia’s greatest rock musicians, but was gutted by the closure of its automotive plant – as well as Detroit and the minister’s namesake UK city of Birmingham.

In late November, Baker was told that her revamped application had been ranked among the bottom 25 per cent of this year’s proposals. It went from being recommended for funding one year to nowhere near fundable the following year. 

She says that she had changed her project on the urging of the experts under the assumption that it would make her project stronger for resubmission. Baker has lodged a Freedom of Information request, hoping that it may shed some light on the process. But she admits that she doesn’t have confidence in that process anymore.

At least two other projects that had been recommended for funding last year, only to be vetoed by Mr Birmingham, also failed to receive funding after being resubmitted for the current round. One applicant says that he was offered no explanation from the ARC, while another has declined to reveal the feedback he received.

Meanwhile, three other projects that had been stonewalled by Mr Birmingham won funding this time around. New education minister Dan Tehan says the ARC told him that all three applications were “markedly different” from those knocked back last year.

In other words, submissions that found favour with the ARC last year – only to be rejected by a politician – met ARC approval again this year provided they had been substantially altered in the meantime.

People have told me that this is not necessarily an indictment of the assessment process. These things can be somewhat subjective and always will be, according to someone awaiting the results of a resubmitted grant application.

An ARC spokeswoman echoed the same sentiment, telling me that grants are assessed against applications considered in that specific funding round.

In my reporting on this story, Mr Tehan’s office did not answer questions over whether it had influenced the peer review process for this year’s grants. Rather, a spokeswoman referred to a web page explaining the process.

However, the government’s opponents have accused it of tinkering with grants assessment. The National Tertiary Education Union called on the government “to end political interference in the ARC”.

NTEU president Alison Barnes said she believed that delays in announcing that this year’s ARC grants – which, when they were revealed on 27 November, were the latest on record – had been “the result of discussions on how to justify Senator Birmingham’s controversial intervention”.

The furore around the independence of the grant application approval process, and the broader topic of academic freedom, has been so strong that these issues appear likely to feature in next year’s federal election.

On 28 November, opposition leader Bill Shorten proclaimed that he would end the “war on science”. He told the Australian Academy of Science that he intended to develop a “charter” with the science and research community, and to commission an inquiry along the lines of the UK’s Nurse review of research councils.

Meanwhile, the coalition announced a revamped National Science and Technology Council to take the place of the former Commonwealth Science Council, ensuring that the government receives the “best independent advice possible”.

John Ross is the Asia-Pacific editor at Times Higher Education. He is based in Sydney, Australia.

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