Australian Financial Review | 9 September 2013
Margaret Sheil, the former head of the Australian Research Council and now provost at the University of Melbourne – a person you would expect to have a sound understanding of both the value and the cost of research – says that contrary to views within the incoming Coalition government, there’s little evidence of “fringe or wasteful” research.
According to Sheil, the ARC grants process is highly detailed and accountable – a proposition that Coalition finance spokesperson Andrew Robb has seemed to agree with at the same time as decrying fringe research. He has said he is “appalled at the amount of time established researchers have to spend simply applying for grants.”
Shiel points out that only one in five research grant applications succeed from the thousands submitted each year.
The system relies on academics spending their summers writing proposals that are scrutinised by colleagues and staff in university research offices prior to submission to the ARC. The ARC then asks up to six experts from around the world to rate the originality and importance of each proposal, providing their advice for free. ARC expert committees scrutinise those comments and … scrutinise and reduce budgets, often by as much as 40%. University research officers monitor expenditure on ARC grants to ensure they meet strict ARC guidelines.
She says that for every example of “quirky” seemingly “fringe” research, there is a detailed explanation that has survived the process. “Sleeping snails” affect crop protection; images of reproductive technologies in Egypt are relevant to medical service in local Islamic communities, and so on.
Sheil points out that political interference has occurred before when Brendan Nelson rejected nine recommended ARC grants in 2006 because they broadly focussed on sex, Asia or both, which effectively “broke” the system.
Sheil expresses the hope that “sense reigns and the new government works with the ARC to minimise the impact of any cuts” in the humanities and social sciences, which form an important part of the innovation system.