Australian reforms ostensibly designed to “strengthen the translational research pipeline” could undermine peer review of funding proposals and turn an already dysfunctional grant application process into a “Frankenstein’s monster” while perpetuating the decline of social sciences.
Critics have slammed Canberra’s plan to recruit non-academics into the College of Experts, a group of luminaries who assess research proposals submitted to the Australian Research Council (ARC).
The 201-strong college, which also advises the ARC on emerging disciplines and reforms to its peer review processes, is composed almost entirely of university academics. Seventy-nine per cent of members are full professors and 19 per cent are associate professors, with a handful in other academic roles.
Acting education minister Stuart Robert has instructed the ARC to advise on how to expand the college to “experts from backgrounds beyond universities”, particularly industry.
Mr Robert also wants advice on how to give “end-user experts” a role in judging whether highly regarded proposals satisfy the “national interest test” (NIT) before they go to the minister for final approval.
The two directives were contained in a letter of expectation Mr Robert sent to ARC CEO Sue Thomas eight days before it emerged that she was stepping down from the role. She has not offered an explanation for the decision.
The NIT, introduced following 2018 revelations that former education minister Simon Birmingham had vetoed 11 humanities research grants, was widely considered redundant because applicants were already required to meet national interest provisions. Times Higher Education understands that the NIT is currently assessed by Professor Thomas and her delegates.
A researcher known under the pseudonym “ARC Tracker” said the NIT proposal would “formalise the pub test”, allowing non-researchers to derail projects that lacked obvious commercial application. “How is anyone going to have any faith in that? What we’re lacking in the ARC at the moment is faith that the system is working. This is going to make it worse.”
University of Sydney governance expert Susan Park said conscripting non-scholars into the College of Experts was a “deeply worrying” prospect, exposing the peer review process to “particularistic interests that are not about evaluating…the best proposals”.
UNSW Sydney economist Richard Holden said the change could dilute the focus on academic merit as the determining factor of grant funding. He said that while industry figures with doctoral qualifications may be capable of assessing research proposals in some STEM fields, that was less likely in the humanities and social sciences.
For example, top economists in banks were “not equipped to assess scholarly research in economics in the same way that peers in the academy are. You’d have to ask which people outside academia are best placed to assess proposed research in sociology, anthropology, history or a whole range of other disciplines.”
Professor Holden said the government’s plans could disproportionately harm the humanities, perpetuating the trend reflected in recent fee hikes and the ministerial vetoes of humanities research grants.
Mr Robert’s letter said the grants assessment process “may require redesigning” to facilitate industry involvement. ARC Tracker said that would mean adding to what was already a convoluted and time-consuming process. “That’s been the problem – it’s just cobbled together. It becomes a Frankenstein’s monster. It grows and grows and becomes less and less useful to anyone, including the assessors.”
Times Higher Education sought comment from Mr Robert’s office.