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Australia’s Research Funding: Reliant on Magic Puddings?

Magic Pudding

Australia’s Research Funding: Reliant on Magic Puddings?

On my drive home from attending the Inquiry Into Australia’s Research Funding (Public Hearing, Brisbane 30/7/2018) my head exploded. This wasn’t directly related to the inquiry – though that caused a mild headache – but listening to Richard Fidler Conversations with Professor Dominic Rowe, a neurologist at Sydney's Macquarie University, who stated

“there are more connections within our brain than there are stars in the milky way”.

Whoa! Bang!

But back to the inquiry by the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training which is designed to “inquire into and report on the efficiency, effectiveness and coherency of Australian Government funding for research” and “will be focused on federally funded research agencies, their funding mechanisms and university collaborative research. The inquiry will not consider the National Health and Medical Research Council, nor non-federal research funding”.

The public hearing is an opportunity for the sector to discuss the key issues publicly with committee members. With over three hours of hearings I came away with pages of notes. Here’s the short version:

what can be done to improve Australia’s research funding system? Funding. The rest, to borrow from a New Yorker, is just chin music.

Below I have aligned the key discussion points to the terms of reference (ToR) before asking – what next?

(Throughout, ‘committee’ refers to the committee members who are members of parliament and ‘panel’ refers to the panel representatives, made up of various sector organisations and individuals. Full details of both are provided at the end of the article.)

ToR1: The diversity, fragmentation and efficiency of research investment across the Australian Government, including the range of programs, guidelines and methods of assessment of grants

Diversity of funding streams – from basic to applied to commercial development – are critical to a strong innovation system and there was shared concern by the panel at the decline in basic research funding. With the decline in basic research funding from government, investment in basic research is increasingly falling to the institutions, particularly to support research in new areas to the institution. To add to the complexity, Australia’s role in creating new knowledge will be further challenged as other nations, including Canada and China, increase investments in basic research.

While the NHMRC’s remit is not part of the inquiry terms, health and medical research was discussed, particularly in the context of the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). The MRFF was acknowledged by the panel as a tremendous long-term initiative, but as it is currently operating in a top down fashion, with advice to the Minister for Health, the panel identified a need to build greater transparency into the decision making processes for administering and distributing the funds.

The committee queried the panel on the value of developing a non-medical research future fund. While the panel recognised this could be as powerful as the MRFF and “provide recognition of the vitally important role of the non-medical side of the economy in ensuring translation to society” the priority should be redressing imbalance in block grants (indirect costs) and basic research funding.

ToR2: The process and administrative role undertaken by research institutions, in particular universities, in developing and managing applications for research funding

The research and submission of statistician Professor Adrian Barnett was of particular interest to the committee. Research by Professor Barnett and colleagues found that preparing new proposals for the National Health and Medical Research Council's project grants took an average of 38 working days, suggesting significant wasted effort when success rates, percentage-wise, are in the mid-teens. Professor Barnett argues for the use of evidence from published research to inform changes to the funding system, and the use of lotteries to select between competing applications. There was not consensus among the panel in relation to whether this time was wasted effort, and whether random allocation was the solution. As one panel member noted “one of the benefits of academic freedom is that we can disagree”.

The University of Queensland noted industry partners, who do not normally have a dedicated research office to support their collaboration, are left grappling with the multitude of schemes and rules. I noted this very issue was in the news on the same day as the public hearing with an ABC news article citing research which “has found that firms find it difficult to navigate the maze of information about government grants.”

The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences noted the challenges for medical research institutes (MRIs), including the false economy of having MRIs excluded from certain schemes. For example, when researchers move between institutions, including between universities, MRIs, and other types of research organisations, they inadvertently shift between being eligible and ineligible to apply for funding to undertake the same research. The current solution for a MRI researcher is to have a 20% appointment at a university and apply through the university.

ToR3: The effectiveness and efficiency of operating a dual funding system for university research, namely competitive grants and performance-based block grants to cover systemic costs of research

The panel shared their concerns at the increasing indirect costs of research both at the direct grant level, and the overarching institutional infrastructure level. The University of Queensland noted research has much higher depreciation costs compared to a general business – given the specialised nature of facilities and equipment – estimating its annual depreciation cost is approximately $180m.

Publishing costs were also put under the spotlight with a submission from Australasian Open Access Strategy Group (AOASG). Publishing is an $8Bn industry. Australian institutions spend approximately $270m on journal subscriptions. Individual publication costs average $3-$5k (up to $8k for top tier journals). Often these costs fell to the individual academic to cover from grant funds or other discretionary funds. QIMR Berghofer noted that for its 800 publications a year, that translates to approximately $4m. AOASG noted this is a complex, interwoven area and “the whole publishing system is quite dysfunctional and needing to be completely reimagined”.

ToR4: Opportunities to maximise the impact of funding by ensuring optimal simplicity and efficiency for researchers and research institutions while prioritising delivery of national priorities and public benefit

An area of significant questioning by the committee was the impact of low success rates as well as the increasing numbers of fundable but not funded applications. QIMR Berghofer noted the increasing “malaise” through ECR/MCR ranks in the face of low success rates, and the subsequent risk of losing capacity.

The committee queried options for improving success rates, including moving to continuous/rolling submissions. It was noted that in the US there was evidence that where this occurs, applications reduced, and quality had increased. Panel representatives noted the move to rolling submission for ARC Linkage Projects had seen a fall in applications, but a more thorough review would be required to determine if quality had increased and what intended and unintended consequences were being realised.

The two former ARC CEOs at the table (Hoj, Sheil) recognised that a barrier to any innovation within the management of funding programs is the lean administrative funding of the funding agencies. While this can be viewed as a positive i.e. ostensibly more dollars available from the ARC to fund research, it leaves the agency hamstrung when seeking to innovate or adopt broad changes such as continuous submission. Added to this is the role of the ARC in administering ERA and now the Engagement and Impact Assessment. ERA was identified by many submissions as providing diminishing returns. With an estimated cost of $70-80m to run, a move to six-year reporting would be welcomed.

What next?

Although all panel representatives welcomed the inquiry and were grateful for the opportunity presented, there was an overarching feeling that Australia had exhausted efficiency options for distributing a shrinking funding pie. As one committee member noted,

“The challenge for us as national policy makers is to think harder about the questions we need answers to”.

The University of Queensland set out the challenge this way:

“the issue for Australia right now, if we are to maintain our strength in research, is this. If international student numbers fell away, due to some circumstances beyond our control, some change in geo politics, we would need to completely rebuild our national innovation system as it is the international student market that is supporting and cross subsidising Australian research capacity”.

Education Minister Mr Simon Birmingham has previously recognised cross-subsidy occurs “some choose quite effectively to cross-subsidise…So, I recognise that there’s extra money that flows into research.”

I came away wondering if, instead of increasing the funding pie, have successive governments hoped for a ‘magic pudding’ which continually refills to support research e.g. commercialisation of research IP or international students? Are these alternative funding streams (or “rivers of gold” as described by Minister Birmingham) providing an excuse for governments to withdraw support rather than maintain, or even increase support that would ultimately increase Australia’s capacity?

“There are more connections within our brain than there are stars in the milky way.”

There is so much to explore. We need capacity building to attract and retain the explorers of our as yet unknown futures.



Committee Members: Mr Andrew Laming MP (Chair), Ms Terri Butler MP (Deputy Chair), Mr Trevor Evans MP (Member), Mr Andrew Giles MP (Member).

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