Let Academics Get Back To Work


More than a month’s worth of commentary on university funding has revealed what many had long suspected: there’s a serious lack of higher order thinking in Australia’s higher education policy.

All government grants, including those administered by the Australian Research Council, were "paused" in October. The tertiary education sector was dismayed, prophesying the doomiest of glooms if their ARC grants were not handed over in full.

When the pause ended, only one man was left in apoplexy: shadow finance minister Andrew Robb. Robb read the titles of some successful proposals and was aghast.

"Under this government," he told The Australian, "We have seen grants thrown at all sorts of questionable projects when money could be better spent."

Questionable projects such as the study of the history of emotions (Europe 1100-1800), for example. The researchers behind that project hit back in The Conversation with a snappy rejoinder: "If hearing about this project causes one person to reassess their suicidal thoughts […] then it has done something incredible."

Well, yes. But in that case, wouldn’t the $24,250,000 spent over the life of the project have been more effectively distributed to suicide prevention schemes? 

Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt, gave a different critique of the system in The Australian, arguing that the ARC system has been "patched so many times, […] it is time to think of a more fundamental change". His plan: "rolling" grants administered by the ARC instead of the current system of "non-rolling" grants.

At the heart of all this discussion is the question that nobody else is asking: why does the Commonwealth Government administer research grant schemes in the first place?

Let’s look at the ARC which funds the vast majority of research grants in Australia. Based out near Canberra’s airport, it has two main types of research funding: Discovery and Linkage. The Discovery scheme supports "blue sky" research. When applying for a grant, you get eight pages (12-point font, Times New Roman or similar) to describe your project in terms that will both impress an expert assessor and be intelligible to a non-expert ARC College member who has the final say on whether you get any funds.

The expert reviewer gives you a score and provides comments which may or may not have anything to do with the score; it’s not uncommon for glowing assessor reports to conceal abysmal scores. The comments go to you (but not the score) and, using the ARC’s version of Twitter, you have 5000 characters to write a response which the assessors will never read. Finally, the non-expert ARC College spends a few minutes skimming through your proposal, through the score and comments given by the assessors, and through your response to the assessors, in order to decide who is going to get a few years worth of funding. Rinse and repeat for Discovery Fellowships (the Early Career Researcher Award, the Discovery Indigenous, the Future Fellowship, and the Australian Laureate Fellowship).

Linkage Projects promote collaboration between universities and industry. You need an "industry partner" who will provide funds and "in-kind support" equal or greater to the amount you’re asking from the ARC. After struggling with the sums involved to submit an adequately descriptive budget, you need to wait several months for the same ARC process to run its course: expert assessor, comments, ARC-Twitter, non-expert decision.

The success rate for Discovery Projects is about 20 per cent. It’s better for Linkage Projects — recently slipping under 40 per cent: finding industry partners who are willing to jump through the ARC’s hoops is too great a hurdle for the lightweights.

This command economy of the intellect is process-rich and outcomes-poor. The process is expensive and resource-intensive — researchers dedicate weeks of salary time to the proposals, plus all the administration, plus the time of the assessors and the ARC College — yet the outcome is suboptimal: low success rates with projects often suffering huge budget cuts.

Further, it is difficult to understand how a government agency could be the best decision-maker for research grants. On the one hand, the ARC simply does not have the capacity to provide high quality peer review of assessments; on the other, it leaves itself open to Robb’s criticism that only projects which address a strategic priority should receive funding. Good news if your research is on how to stop the boats. Bad news if your project is about the reception of the Classics in Australia’s political history.

Speaking of Classics (to which I am very partial), despite there being high-profile classicists in Australia, and despite it being studied by P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and some of Australia’s older public servants, the Australian Research Council does not recognise it as a field of research. Why? Because the Australian Bureau of Statistics didn’t designate it a six-digit code. When classicists want a research grant, they have to convince an expert in a "related" field that it’s worth the funds. Meanwhile, if you study "sports science", you’re totally in luck.

It’s this "computer says no" attitude that makes the ARC completely unsuited to funding high quality research. A university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) is in a much better position to allocate funds to worthy projects and researchers. Or why not filter the money through groups like the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, the Council of Law Deans, and the Australian Council of Deans of Science?

All the money saved by sparing researchers from having to "explain why the assessors are wrong in 5000 characters including spaces and return carriage" could be spent on research. All the time saved by not forcing researchers to write research proposals that are both impressive to experts and intelligible to lay folk could be spent on research. All the resources spent assisting researchers to comply with the application requirements could be spent assisting researchers to do actual, world-changing, knowledge-building research.

Before we start tinkering with the system or arguing about how to distribute research grants, let’s ask the big questions: for what policy goal does the ARC’s competitive grants program exist? Do we really need the government micromanaging Australia’s researchers? And wouldn’t the world be a smarter place if researchers did more researching and less paper shuffling?

New Matilda

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