The Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia has serious concerns regarding proposed changes to the structure and governance of Australian Research Council (ARC) funding schemes. These changes are outlined in a Letter of Expectation sent to the ARC CEO by Acting Minister for Education and Youth the Hon Stuart Robert MP.
This letter, dated 6 December and released by the ARC on Tuesday 14 December 2021, outlines four major changes that have been requested by the Minister for immediate implementation. These are framed in the Ministerial press release as a ‘new direction for the ARC to help secure Australia’s recovery’.
The requested changes are:
- Alignment of grants under the ARC’s Linkage scheme with government-identified priorities; with at least 70% of Linkage funding to support grants that align with the six National Manufacturing Priorities
- An expanded role for the National Interest Test in determining funding recommendations, including involvement of industry representatives and other end-users in the assessment of National Interest Test statements as well as in more general grant review through an expanded membership of the College of Experts
- Fast-tracking the implementation of recommendations of the ERA review, with a particular focus on impact assessment
- An expanded ARC Advisory Committee with an independent Chair and substantial end-user membership to advise on the ARC CEO on strategic direction and alignment with Government priorities.
These changes are of significant concern to the Academy and to the social science disciplines more generally. In particular, the proposal to expand the ARC College of Experts to include people without research expertise risks diluting the peer-review processes that ensure only the best and most worthwhile research receives public funding.
The proposed alignment of the Linkage scheme with a narrow set of manufacturing priorities also risks damaging Australia’s research ecosystem and our international standing. This is particularly concerning given several of the six National Manufacturing Priority areas are already supported by significant research bodies and structures. This includes:
- the Defence Science Group supporting the defence manufacturing priority ($411.5M research investment in 2020-21)
- the Rural Research and Development Corporations supporting the food and beverage priority ($393M research investment in 2020-21), and
- the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) supporting the recycling and clean energy Priority ($344.8M research investment in 2020-21).[i]
The ARC’s National Competitive Grants Program by comparison is only $805.4M (2020-21), with the Linkage Program accounting for around 40% of this at $325.1M.[ii] In this context, the additional prioritisation of six already well-supported manufacturing priorities at the expense of an enormous array of new and existing research partnerships between universities and businesses in non-manufacturing industries and those addressing other social and economic challenges appears bizarre.
Perhaps the most serious concern is the proposal to alter (and potentially dilute) the long-established mechanism of peer-review by including non-research experts through membership of the ARC College of Experts.
Academic research throughout the world is built on a foundation of review of research outputs and funding applications by those best able to evaluate the methodology, the knowledge context and the research claims.
Non-experts – even highly qualified and experienced researchers in different fields – simply lack the knowledge required to evaluate such research and, in the context of funding applications, to determine whether it is appropriately designed and resourced, and whether it adds appropriately and usefully to the existing body of knowledge.
While the Academy accepts that some level of national interest consideration is warranted in the consideration of public research expenditure and that non-researchers have a valid role to play in such consideration, the proposal to include end-users as members of the College of Experts raises very serious concerns.
More generally, the Academy echoes the dismay of many researchers across all disciplines at the sudden and unexpected announcement of these changes by the Acting Minister, without any forewarning or consultation with those who will be most affected. The Academy also notes with regret the concurrent announcement that the ARC’s CEO Professor Sue Thomas will be stepping down from her role in the new year.
Coming as they do on top of the significant changes to university funding implemented through the Job-ready Graduates Package, the Academy is concerned that this new proposal to narrow the scope of support for research disciplines is another step along a path that could lead to a long-term reduction in Australia’s expertise and capacity to respond to critical social, environmental and economic challenges.
As an independent, national body representing leading social scientists, the Academy is committed to monitoring this new development and working closely with the Australian Government, with other elected representatives and with public officials to ensure that any changes are considered carefully and with a full understanding of the longer-term impacts on our research ecosystem.
Professor Jane Hall FAHMS FASSA, President
Professor Richard Holden FASSA, President-Elect
[i] See Science, Research and Innovation (SRI) Budget Tables, February 2021: https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/science-research-and-innovation-sri-budget-tables
[ii] Department of Education, Skills and Employment 2021-22 Portfolio Budget Statements. https://www.dese.gov.au/about-us/resources/portfolio-budget-statements-2021-22