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Australian Research Council urged to back basic research

Image: Allen Allen [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Submissions to funding review emphasise imbalances between institutions, career stages and types of research supported

The Australian Research Council should prioritise blue-sky research to prevent it from being overshadowed by commercialisation, leading research and university associations have said.

Submissions to the ARC’s review of how it distributes around A$895 million of public money annually also said it should work harder on diversifying the disciplines it funds and solving problems with research careers.

The review follows a 2023 inquiry into the council’s underlying aims and the passing earlier this year of a law detailing how it should operate. Submissions closed on 13 May.

The vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia told the review that the ARC “has served us well for its intended purpose” but that its focus should shift. UA wants the council to prioritise basic research, streamline the number of schemes and improve how it promotes research impact.

UA’s submission said that although overall Australian research and development funding is growing, “funding for ‘pure basic’ research [is] actually contracting” because of a greater focus on research translation.

“Basic research is the prerequisite for developing practical applications and commercial ideas—it is the well that feeds that pipeline,” UA told the review.

The vice-chancellors’ proposed model for the ARC is to create large, flexible “pools” of money for its funding programmes and fellowships, with allocations from those pools adjusted to suit current priorities.

Uneven grant distribution

A submission from the Innovative Research Universities group urged more diversification of where grants go to.

“The unequal disbursement of National Competitive Grants Program [funding] by institution, gender and seniority is well recognised, but typically justified by the excellence-based principle of the NCGP. Roughly two-thirds of all NCGP funding is awarded to the Group of Eight universities, two-thirds of all grants are awarded to associate or full professors, and one-third of all grants are to academics with more than 20 years’ experience since their PhDs,” the IRU said.

Relatively low funding of humanities and social sciences research—which accounts for about 20 per cent of ARC funding, according to the IRU—should be examined for “effects on equity, diversity and interdisciplinary research collaboration”, the group wrote.

The Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities said that the NCGP needs more money and for the money to be more equally distributed.

“The current focus on commercialisation with the NCGP has obscured the broader range of potential research impacts and the value that researchers bring in terms of novel contributions to knowledge. It is vital that the ARC provides a greater recognition of these broader researcher impacts,” the deans said.

The Australian Historical Association’s submission said that the ARC “can better recognise the particular requirements of humanities, arts and social sciences researchers”, pointing out that less funding was often needed than for scientific research.

“For historians, writing is itself a research act. Historians need better support and time to be able to do this more effectively. Historians also now often present their work in forms less familiar in academic contexts, such as films, podcasts and online multimedia.”

The focus on big universities was also raised by the Computing Research and Education Association of Australasia, which wrote that “NCGP grant programmes should ensure equitable access for universities and teams with limited internal funding, small research environments and regional locales, while also supporting collaborations with regional universities in assessment criteria to address disparities in funding between urban and regional institutions”.

Career issues

Many submissions mentioned the impact of grant systems on research careers, with UA saying that early career researchers in particular were facing insecurity, poor research cultures and high levels of burnout.

“Providing early career researchers with the right environment to flourish in their careers will secure Australia’s future research workforce…It may be the appropriate time to discuss if the ARC should continue to fund the senior academic workforce through its programmes or skew funding towards early career researchers to continue a pipeline of researchers,” UA said.

As well as calling for more certainty, submissions wanted mechanisms to improve diversity of the workforce.

Administrative burden was also a concern, with UA saying this applied both to “pre- and post-award” of grants. The ARC’s move towards expression-of-interest rounds in the Discovery Projects scheme was described as promising, and UA would like to see this approach expanded to other grants.

The IRU recommended better support for project teams to “plan for and evaluate engagement and impact” in their work.