We need to look at research regulation in Australia

Australia’s research is one of our great strengths. But the challenges of managing our research are many and complex.

From new vaccines to feature-length films, Australians have been responsible for discoveries and inventions that have both enriched and preserved lives globally. But our research is also muddled by an ever-changing and confusing regulatory landscape, fraught with byzantine bureaucratic processes and personal and financial motives that impact the credibility and usefulness of our contributions.

It’s easy to argue that the public deserves as strong a return on interest from research spending as possible, but the realities of funding and regulating our country’s research are the result of complex and intersecting factors.

“Publish or perish” is an aphorism popular in academia since the 1930s. Since its inception, pressure to publish has only crept upwards. The pressure to publish to secure funding and ensure career progression, as well as bias in what does get published, contribute to academic misconduct, including such practices as falsified data, fake citations and, as in a notable case in Australia, self-plagiarism to artificially inflate the apparent number of publications attributable to a researcher.

Nevertheless, funding is finite and need for funding is not. Research grants necessarily fall victim to the vagaries of relative scarcity.

The ABC has lately pointed out that, unlike most developed countries, Australia lacks a regulatory body for integrity in research—although we do have one for integrity in sports, of course. We still spend billions on research every year.

Despite the push for an office of research integrity, it seems that no matter how egregious the transgression, there are systemic problems with our research regulatory and funding models that go far beyond academic misconduct.

On Christmas Eve the acting minister for education vetoed multiple previously-approved research projects, cancelling grants in such areas as early English literature and modern China. This drew widespread and international criticism of Australia’s research model for being vulnerable to political interference.

Earlier in 2021, the ARC also performed an about-face on the point of whether pre-print publications could be cited in grant applications. While pre-prints haven’t been subject to peer review, the convention is that academics who are experts in the area use them as representatives of cutting-edge research in their field in making applications. The ARC’s decision and subsequent change of mind rendered the grants application process unnavigable for many.

Regardless of how often the regulations governing universities and research institutions are altered—and it is often—we seem to be playing a perpetual game of catch-up with challenges wrought by a fast-changing world and long-ignored cultural problems.

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