Review of the ARC’s Implementation of the
National Science and Research Priorities
under the National Competitive Grants Program
The Go8, comprising Australia’s research-intensive universities, are the single largest recipients of research funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and as such represent a significant part of the ARC’s core constituency.
Whilst not in the scope of this review it is worth noting that the Go8, in its recently released Priority Directions 2: Three Essentials for Future Economic Success, recommended that an incoming Government increase the real value of ARC funding to the 2012-13 level of $971 million and that funding be indexed annually. This is an investment with a high and sure economic and social return for the Australian community – in the same way that the National Science and Research Priorities (NSRPs) must continue to deliver in areas of ‘immediate and critical importance to Australia’. The two go hand in hand.
It is in this context that the Go8, which spends some $6.4 billion annually on R&D provides commentary and recommendations on the Review of the ARC’s Implementation of the NSRPs under the National Competitive Grants Program.
As a starting point:
- The Go8 recognises the importance of a research system that enables activity from blue-sky discoveries through to experimental research including as a basis for more immediate applications.
- The Go8 considers it essential that the ARC sustains flexibility in the system to cater for research that delivers outcomes and benefits across that widest potential range.
- The NSRPs representing a snapshot in time of priorities for the nation – should continue to serve as a useful though partial guide for today’s researchers applying to the National Competitive Grants Program as Australia’s primary investigator-led research program. However, to ensure the continued effectiveness of the research system, the NSRPs as they stand cannot and should not be an in-built basis by which ARC funding allocations are made.
- The Go8 considers that the current ARC approach in respect to the existing NSRPs would appear to allow the necessary flexibility in application and use of the funding by researchers to support rich and diverse research outcomes for Australia and enable a level of academic freedom supportive of a healthy democracy.
The Go8 recommends that:
- The ARC retains the existing approach of implementing the NSRPs through reference as relevant in specific grant scheme objectives; seeking advice from applicants regarding what if any priorities and associated Practical Research Challenges their proposed research aligns with; and seeking assessor advice on whether the research has the potential to contribute to the NSRPs.
- Specifically, the ARC should not specifically direct funding to research in the NSRPs as a collective; nor to individual NSRPs, nor use them as a basis for proportional ARC funding allocations.
- The ARC develop a method of checking or validating whether as advised by the applicant the proposed research is aligned with a) the NSRPs and b) a specific NSRP, for instance through the assessment process or advice from other experts, to add rigour and credibility to the impression of how the ARC’s funding helps address the priorities.
- The ARC consider – in answer to the invitation to comment on other priorities – how it can enable strong Australian engagement with Horizon Europe.
Appropriateness of the ARC’s approach to implementing the NSRPs
The role of the ARC as the major funder of research outside of medical and health imparts on the agency a significant responsibility for ensuring the system remains viable, robust and able to fulfil the aim of Australia’s research being leading-edge, original and impactful now and into the future.
As the key funder of investigator-led research, with the NCGP being unique in funding across almost all disciplines of university research and being the major source of basic research, the ARC is also relied on as part of its role to ensure that systemic support is provided for undirected research not tied to specific priorities of the government of the day.
The Go8 recognises the importance of NSRPs in setting the direction for Australian science and research within a specified timeframe and emphasises the importance of the NSRPs being updated and remaining current to maximise their effectiveness as a broad guide for the nation’s research.
However, the Go8 does not agree with the view outlined in the consultation paper that the NSRPs are so broad in area that they may not affect in themselves the level of research funded within each broad disciplinary category. For example, there may be inadvertent exclusion of humanities research.
The Go8 considers the ARC’s approach of not targeting a specific proportion of funding to research in the NSRPs to be appropriate. It would be inappropriate for the ARC’s research funding to be allocated based on specified targets for funding allocations against individual NSRPs. The Go8 strongly advocates that allocations continue to be made on quality and merit.
Particular care should be taken to ensure that the goals of ARC Discovery – namely the focus on new ideas and the recognition of the need for fundamental research as part of Australia’s research and innovation system – are not compromised by inappropriate conditions related to the NSRPs.
Alignment of ARC funding with NSRPs
While the Go8 does not object to ARC applications nominating a primary NSRP as a means of assisting the ARC to later categorise funding destinations, whether an NSRP is identified or not – and what NSRP is identified – should continue to have minimal bearing on the outcomes of the application process.
The degree to which the ARC’s funded research is aligned with the NSRPs should be regarded only as but one indication of how the ARC’s funding is achieving outcomes, including to serve the national interest which necessarily goes beyond the nine areas defined.
- The existing NSRPs as they stand reflect specific government priorities of the day, as indicated as an example by the establishment of Industry Growth Centres around six of these priorities
- ARC funding supports research in other or emerging areas that could be regarded as priorities such as addressing challenges around our ageing population and the prosperity of our indigenous people.
The allocation of ARC funding to research identified as being linked to the NSRPs – indicated by the ARC as being around 70 per cent – is purely nominal, given that identification by researchers is not further validated by the ARC including through the application or other processes.
The Go8 considers that the current level of alignment of ARC funding with the NSRPs is immaterial, given our position that ARC funding should not be tied explicitly to the NSRPs. In addition, the way in which a NSRP is ascribed to proposed or funded research should be tightened to ensure the data is meaningful.
Other challenges or areas of priority for ARC funding focus
The Go8 welcomes the recent announcement of the ARC signing a new Implementing Arrangement with the European Research Council (ERC) to provide opportunities for ARC-funded early career researchers from Australia to pursue research collaborations with European researchers supported through a relevant ERC grant.
However, the Go8 remains concerned that Australia may not be able to adequately take advantage of Horizon Europe without express and considerable Australian Government commitment to supporting Australian engagement in the scheme including through the Australian Research Council alongside the National Health and Medical Research Council.
As outlined in Priority Directions 2, the Go8 recommends that the Australian Government, with the support of the ARC, negotiate with the European Union to secure formal partner status in Horizon Europe so that as a nation we are not locked out of seven years of research collaboration through this program.