Letter from Australia: another day, another inquiry

There are some fiendishly wicked problems that beset the research sector: an unquenchable thirst for funding; falling success rates for competitive grants; superabundant red tape and mountains of paperwork; wasted productivity spent applying for grants that have a 90% chance of being knocked back; lack of representation of women, early-career researchers and minority groups and so on and so forth.

As long as I have been writing about higher education, these issues have been perennials and despite serious attempts over the years by research councils and others very little appears to change.

This week a House of Representatives Standing Committee released its report about these very issues.

This inquiry will examine the efficiency, effectiveness and coherency of Australian Government funding for research. It will focus on federally funded research agencies, their funding mechanisms and university collaborative research.”

Interest was high, attracting 97 thoughtful and considered submissions, alongside four public hearings between July and August.

The level of interest is somewhat surprising given the fact it comes on the back of four other similar reviews in recent years: the National Health and Medical Research Council’s structural review of its grant program; the Australian Council of Learned Academies’ review of Australia’s research training system; the Miles Review of the Cooperative Research Centres Programme and the Watt review of research policy and funding arrangements.

It strikes me as slightly odd that a review that is looking at “the significant time, effort and resources in applying for research funding”, is itself demanding significant time, effort and resources in getting yet more submissions to a process that has been looked at through a microscope a million times before.

As Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia colourfully put it:

In any one year, Australia’s university researchers collectively spend more than 500 working years on writing applications for just one of the major national grants schemes.

And we can add to that another couple of decades spent by policy wonks writing submissions to inquiries addressing that wasted 500 years.

Red tape and paperwork

It’s not that these issues are not important – they are – but one seriously wonders with everything else going on in Canberra at the moment, whether this report will actually have any traction. The final report is mostly benign, repeating what many other reports and inquiries have recommended but have largely failed to counter the prevailing trends that it was established to address.

If it does address voluminous amounts of paperwork by recommending the introduction of a single online research management system. That would be a wonderful thing. But someone would have to pay for it and that would be the government. Whether it will be a priority come the next budget (which will most likely coincide with a federal election) is not assured. Will it happen? As Donald Trump would say: maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

The report also recommends a two-stage application process to reduce the amount of information required in initial applications, with those going through to a second round requiring more detailed proposals and budgets. (I have a sense of deja vu about this, but maybe I’m mistaken).

And as of last night, Dan Tehan, the Education Minister, introduced his new “national interest test” that will require a 150 word, plain English statement addressing the proposal’s “economic, commercial, environmental, social or cultural benefits” for the Australian community. All well and good, but (a) more paperword and (b) probably not worth the paper its written on.

Affirming the centrality of peer review

It’s ironic that the recommendations affirm the centrality and importance of peer review to the grants process, while at the same time the aforementioned national interest test has been introduced because the government has been wilfully undermining the peer review process by vetoing Australian Research Council grants.

It’s even more ironic that the recommendation supporting peer review says the system can be strengthened by “providing detailed information and constructive feedback to unsuccessful applicants and ensuring the training of peer reviewers is of the highest standard.”

Now I don’t want to sound too sarcastic here, but maybe the government should practice what it preaches. After all, the authors of the eleven successful grant that were overturned by then education minister Simon Birmingham, only found out about it after questions were asked in Senate Estimates. Subsequent to that, the Opposition has suggested, rightly so, that from now on there should be a ministerial code requiring a full and considered explanation as to why a grant is rejected – and just not liking the title is not good enough. It might actually help new ministers considering such a route of action to undertake a little training in peer review to get their skills into gear.

I also note that recommendation 13 is for the research quality and impact programs “be reviewed to consider ways to reduce the cost and administrative burden on universities”, including that the timing of data collection be reduced from three to five years. No doubt that will be a great relief – and should help universities pay for a new levy that has been imposed on them to contribute to the administration of the income contingent loans system. Swings and roundabouts, as they say.

There is so much in this report that just feels like deja vu. It recommends “closer examination of models, strategies and incentives … to increase collaboration with universities and other publicly funded research institutions” and even goes so far as to recommend a separate inquiry on this very issue. All well and good, but all this was supposedly central to Malcolm Turnbull’s (now long forgotten) innovation nation agenda.

What’s interesting is what it doesn’t mention. Among the recommendations, the issue of funding is weirdly absent. Former ARC boss. Melbourne University Provost and now QUT vice chancellor Margaret Sheil told a public hearing in Brisbane that: “if you look at the quantum of funding of the Australian government’s investment in research, the amount that’s going to blue sky discovery research has been diminishing over the last eight to 10 years.”

Indeed a submission from the Department of Education shows that “Australia’s total expenditure on R&D was estimated to be $31.2 billion in 2015-16, or 1.88% of GDP, placing us 18th out of 35 OECD countries on this measure.”

Given the current debate in the UK about getting research funding up to 3% this strikes me as perilously inadequate.

As Sheil told the inquiry: “(Research funding) hasn’t kept pace with the growth in our sector. So not only is there less absolute funding available for basic or innovation discovery research; there’s much less per active researcher in the system. As our universities have grown, our quantum hasn’t grown.”

She went on: “We are effectively relying on the income that universities receive from international students to invest in our basic research capacity.”

Despite an early and energetic show of enthusiasm for research and innovation by Malcolm Turnbull when he first stepped into the role of Prime Minister, the whole agenda has slide quietly out of contention. Certainly there is a lack of rigour and gravity about this report and its recommendations. Once again, so much time time, effort and resources have been invested into something that is unlikely to deliver any results. Just like their last research application.

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