New review for Australian Research Council bears watching

After a tumultuous few years, independent review of the ARC is welcomed as diverse stakeholders recognise weaknesses in its current processes.

An independent review of the Australian Research Council was recently announced at the Universities Australia 2022 Gala Dinner by new Education Minister Jason Clare. In his speech he cited a focus on problematic “delays and political interference,” an allusion to the previous minister’s vetoing of grants previously approved by the ARC’s college of experts.

The 2021 year was really an unprecedented one for the higher education industry in Australia. 1 in 5 jobs were lost in the 12 months prior, owing to restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, pre-print citations were briefly and bizarrely banned from competitive grant applications, a decision that was overturned almost immediately—but not before it affected the outcomes of some unlucky applicants’ submissions and raised some questions about how research offices communicated with academics.

Even more significant was that the announcements of major linkage and discovery grants were delayed for months, disrupting project timelines and leaving researchers suspended in uncertainty about the state of their employment for the coming year. On Christmas Eve, eight days before the commencement of 2022 funding, several research projects previously approved by the ARC’s college of experts were rejected by the acting Education Minister in a decision that was censured by researchers and industry authorities.

In light of that difficult preceding year, academics from the University of Melbourne have provided seven suggestions for changes to the ARC’s processes that might get some attention during this review. They include revisiting overall funding practices, balancing research experience and industry interests, addressing political interference and reviewing the labour-intensive competitive grants process.

However, questions about funding and the involute competitive grants landscape have dogged Australian research for years now. Recommendations resulting from previous inquiries have not always enjoyed effective implementation.

In a response to the announcement, ARC leadership released a statement welcoming the opportunity to “review our purpose and functions and modernise”.

This independent review will be something to keep an eye on—it will be interesting to see its process, and what impact it may have upon the research landscape in Australia.

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