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Review recommends stronger guardrails against political interference in awarding research grants

Health Industry Hub | April 21, 2023 |

Medical: The Australian Government’s Department of Education has today released a review of the Australian Research Council (ARC), one of Australia’s key science research funding agencies. The review attracted 223 public submissions and the final report contains 10 recommendations to help ensure the ARC supports high-quality Australian research into the future.

Kylie Walker, CEO of The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), said
“The new approvals process will provide certainty that research proposals will be assessed by experts on their scientific and research merits. Restricting the Ministerial veto and requiring transparency for such decisions, as we outlined in ATSE’s submission, is a critical recommendation of the Review.

“ATSE calls on the Australian Government to conduct a broader review of national research funding with an aim to bring total R&D funding to levels comparable with our international competitors, around 3% of GDP.

“The review also fails to address funding the full cost of research, relegating this to the concurrent Universities Accord process. This issue must not be allowed to fall through the gaps. We call on the Universities Accord panel to develop a plan for sufficiently funding the indirect costs of research.”

She added “ATSE is disappointed that the Panel did not seek to address the uncertainty caused by irregular and unpredictable grant outcome dates. Legislated grant announcement dates would provide greater certainty to researchers – particularly those who are most vulnerable in the system; junior researchers employed on short-term contracts whose careers have been dependent on announcements made at the directive of the serving Minister.”

Misha Schubert, CEO of Science & Technology Australia, the nation’s peak body representing more than 115,000 scientists and technologists, said “The proposed changes would create stronger guardrails to prevent future political interference in the awarding of grants, safeguard the crucial investment in discovery breakthroughs, and profoundly relieve one of the major stresses on Australia’s research workforce.

“Shifting to a two-stage application would be a gamechanger for productivity, wellbeing and morale in Australia’s brilliant research workforce, which is why STA has championed this shift for several years. It can free up researchers who currently spend hundreds of hours writing full funding applications – when around only one in five of those applications gets funded.

“We also welcome the recommendations to create stronger guardrails against political interference in awarding research grants, and to safeguard Australia’s investments in discovery breakthroughs.”

Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, said “We are best served by a system with strong governance, peer review and genuine transparency at its core and we are pleased that the recommendations to government support these needs. Past interventions have eroded confidence in our research program and our reputation for research excellence. We have an opportunity now to right those wrongs.

“The panel has acknowledged this and backed a rigorous process with the establishment of an ARC Board with decision-making power on grant funding in response to merit-based recommendations. The panel has struck the right balance in limiting the ‘ministerial veto power’ for use only when national security is concerned – with an appropriate level of transparency.

“The expert panel, led by Professor Margaret Sheil with Professors Mark Hutchinson and Susan Dodds, has provided a path forward for the ARC and we look forward to a favourable government response.”

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