ARC review welcomed by industry bodies

Friday, 21 April, 2023

ARC review welcomed by industry bodies

Minister for Education Jason Clare yesterday released the Final Report of the Australian Government-commissioned ‘Trusting Australia’s Ability: Review of the Australian Research Council Act 2001’.

The review was announced by Clare on 30 August 2022 to consider the role and purpose of the Australian Research Council (ARC) within the Australian research system, in order to ensure the ARC can meet the current and future needs of Australia’s research sector. Led by Professor Margaret Sheil, the former CEO of the ARC, this is the first comprehensive review of the ARC since its establishment in 2001, making several recommendations to modernise legislation and strengthen governance arrangements.

The Australian Academy of Science has welcomed the release of the review, with Academy President Professor Chennupati Jagadish saying the underlying theme of the review is that of trust — with a strong emphasis on the critical role of the ARC in Australia’s research system.

“The role of the ARC, its leadership and the execution of its functions should reflect our aspirations for the research landscape, for research excellence and how they can best support our national ambitions,” Jagadish said.

“The recommendations in the review provide a strong basis to support this purpose and the ongoing effectiveness of the ARC.”

Jagadish said the Academy welcomes the recommendation that the commitment to funding basic research should be incorporated into the ARC’s purpose under the Act, saying this is important to safeguarding fundamental research that grows our knowledge base. The Academy also endorses the following recommendations:

  • Restore the ARC board and populate it with members with the right combination of skills and experience;
  • Discontinue Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) and modernise ARC capacity and requirements for data collection and analysis;
  • Streamline National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP) guidelines to reflect international best practice and reduce the administrative burden on academic and research organisations.

Jagadish added that the focus of ministerial discretion on the NCGP guidelines and funding available, rather than on individual grants, would place the recommendations and approvals in the hands of the people with the expertise to assess their merit.

“It is positive to see the recommendations to advance Indigenous Australians in research and recognition of the impact of the ARC on attracting and retaining research talent,” Jagadish said.

“The recommendations in the review are so important and sensible that the Academy looks forward to their implementation as soon as practicable.”

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) meanwhile believes the review’s recommendations will help strengthen Australian research, reduce administrative burdens, and minimise the potential for political interference in Australian research. The Academy endorses the recommendation to optimise the grants process by introducing a two-stage grant system, as recommended by its own submission to the review, and a board with broad research experience.

“The new approvals process will provide certainty that research proposals will be assessed by experts on their scientific and research merits,” said ATSE CEO Kylie Walker.

“Restricting the ministerial veto and requiring transparency for such decisions, as we outlined in ATSE’s submission, is a critical recommendation of the review.”

The current ARC Act needs to be amended every year to provide funding for the ARC’s programs. The recommendation to have automatic indexed funding built into the Act will help provide certainty for the research community and university sector and reduce unnecessary delays in yearly grant rounds, ATSE said.

The Academy was however disappointed that the review does not address dwindling research and development funding across the nation. Walker said, “ATSE calls on the Australian Government to conduct a broader review of national research funding with an aim to bring total R&D funding to levels comparable with our international competitors, around 3% of GDP.

“The review also fails to address funding the full cost of research, relegating this to the concurrent Universities Accord process. This issue must not be allowed to fall through the gaps. We call on the Universities Accord panel to develop a plan for sufficiently funding the indirect costs of research.

“ATSE is disappointed that the review did not seek to address the uncertainty caused by irregular and unpredictable grant outcome dates. Legislated grant announcement dates would provide greater certainty to researchers.”

Finally, Science & Technology Australia (STA) has commended the review panel on its legislative and regulatory recommendations to strengthen ARC operations and independence.

“The ARC plays a crucial role in supporting Australia’s economy-boosting research sector,” said STA CEO Misha Schubert. “We’re delighted to see the expert panel have listened to the challenges faced by the sector and responded thoughtfully and cleverly.”

Walker said the STA has championed the shift to a two-stage grant application for several years, noting that this could free up researchers who currently spend hundreds of hours writing full funding applications — around one in five of which actually receives funding.

“Shifting to a two-stage application would be a game changer for productivity, wellbeing and morale in Australia’s brilliant research workforce,” Walker said.

“We also welcome the recommendations to create stronger guardrails against political interference in awarding research grants, and to safeguard Australia’s investments in discovery breakthroughs.”

Clare said the government will consider the findings of the ARC review and respond in due course. The report is available here.

Image credit:šan Janković

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