What's Wrong With Academic Grants?


Last Friday, the ARC released the results of four National Competitive Grants: Discovery Projects, Future Fellowships, Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA), and Discovery Indigenous. The results had been months in the waiting and, in some cases, would mean whether or not some academics will have a job next year.

It was therefore something of a shock to see the success rates for these grants. For Discovery Projects, the success rate was 19.9 per cent (down from 21.4 per cent in last year). DECRA was down to 13.6 per cent from 15.6 per cent.

At first glance, the Discovery Indigenous success rate looked promising: 38.5 per cent of applications were successful. On closer examination of the results, this amounted only to 10 awards.

But the real shock lay in wait for the Future Fellowship applicants. Last year, the success rate was 34.7 per cent. This year, it crashed down to 16.3 per cent as a result of an unprecedented increase in the number of applications.

It's clear that something is broken at the ARC. The Coalition has repeatedly stated that the problem is the nature of the projects being funded. Back in September, the Coalition’s Chairman of the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee, Jamie Briggs, released a statement saying:

“A Coalition Government, if elected, will crack down on Labor’s addiction to waste by auditing increasingly ridiculous research grants and reprioritising funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) to deliver funds to where they’re really needed. Some of the grants issued by the ARC in recent years have been, frankly, completely over the top.”

As such, spending public money researching, for example, the God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism was an example of terrible waste. The committee’s finding followed Andrew Robb’s comments in November 2012 claiming that studying the history of emotions was a waste of money.

Briggs and his committee were right to identify the ARC as a source of waste, but the waste is in the application process itself.

Let’s say that an ARC application takes, at bare minimum, 10 hours to produce. In these four rounds alone, 49,610 hours of Australian researchers’ time were spent on unsuccessful projects. These four rounds have cost Australian taxpayers at least four years of valuable research time. Even so, very few proposals to fix the system are floating around.

Last week, the National Health and Medical Research Council – which administers grants for medical research – announced that it is considering  “rolling rounds” for more of their schemes. The model is already used for their Partnership Projects where applications can be submitted all year round, with successful applications announced intermittently.

The CEO of the ARC, Professor Aidan Byrne, has indicated that there’s no appetite within the ARC to go down the path of rolling rounds, and with good reason: there’s no evidence that they reduce waste. Success rates for Partnership Projects aren’t published, but the overall success rate of applications to the NHMRC is only about 20 per cent. In the latest announcement of successful Partnership Projects applications, there were only six projects listed.

Last year, I wrote here at NM:

“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?”

Instead of asking these questions, the conversation has been framed quite differently, with most interlocutors assuming that the ARC is a necessary part of research funding. From there, they appear to ask: “How can the ARC most effectively micromanage research funding? What about a system where, instead of giving people a kick once a year, we had a system that gave people ‘rolling kicks’ all year round?"

Beyond small-target tinkering, the Australian university sector has been oddly silent on proposals to reduce waste in the ARC system. Given the sector is overflowing with clever people, the government should be awash with options for smarter, more efficient ways to distribute research funds. If smarter people don’t come up with some snazzy ideas fairly quickly, the Coalition will start to listen to ideologically friendly voices.

In October 2012, Dr Philippa Martyr – who frequently contributes to publications by the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs – wrote in Quadrant:

“Imagine a world in which humanities and arts academics were given credit not for winning enormous grants, but for their ability to function without them. What if academic excellence was measured by who could produce the most for the lowest cost? What if we had a university system that positively rewarded low-cost self-funded research in the arts and humanities (and even in other fields), seeing it as a practical way of finding equally low-cost solutions to all kinds of problems?”

Martyr’s argument – also echoed in The Australian – was that researchers should get personal bank loans to fund projects that weren’t in the “national interest”. If she suggested that any other employee should finance the work of their organisation, she’d be ignored. That Quadrant and The Australian saw fit to publish Martyr’s proposal shows how few ideas there are in the sector.

Nor did she make clear what she meant by “national interest”, but it explicitly did not include Professor Margaret Thornton’s Discovery Project "Balancing Law and Life" (a project which examines the tensions in trying to get a work/life balance in modern law firms transformed by mergers, incorporation, and listing on the stock exchange).

Universities need to put some serious options on the table, lest they abandon the public debate to people like Martyr and Briggs. The government needs help to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and efficiently. If the boffins don’t come up with proposals of their own, they should expect the Prime Minister’s Commission of Audit to do it for them.

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