Watts not to love in research funding review

Plus the feds specify what they want researched

Ambidextrous academics

CMM’s kind word for all prize for December goes to research reviewer Ian Watt, who writes, “universities are agile places.” Unless he was entering it in the irony award.

UA NOV 15

Another brick in the impact wall

A key aspect of the government’s research strategy was put in place on Friday with the release of the Watt Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements. Once the Innovation Statement appears today the work of former industry and science minister Ian Macfarlane and outgoing chief scientist Ian Chubb to create a new applied research model will be complete.

Even in isolation, Dr Watt’s comprehensive review recommends radical changes to a research infrastructure support system in need of repair. He proposes a simplified funding model that allocates money on the basis of an institution’s competitive grant income plus earnings from business and other “end users”.

And there milords and ladies is the jewel in the crown of the plan that Mr Macfarlane and Professor Chubb started working on when what’s his name was prime minister – a research funding system that engages universities with industry. Certainly ritual respect is paid to pure research, but this report, like just about every declaration of doctrine for the last 12 months, makes research serving the immediate national interest, especially in the nine priority areas, (see below) an article of faith.

Thus Dr Watt proposes a research “engagement” process that will have an impact on future research funding. And he suggests using the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering’s impact artistry, formerly known as Research Excellence for Australia to do it, in harness with the Australian Research Council’s 2018 Excellence for Research in Australia.

But in what looks to CMM like a big win for the ARC he proposes funding the council “to manage the development and implementation of the assessment.”

Overall this is the work of a master mandarin. The Watt review provides enough incentives for university managers to support a new policy direction and keeps research bureaucracy barons relatively happy – the ARC’s Aidan Byrne has a seat on the council of patronage.

As such, the advocates of pure research have no natural allies in their fight against what sounds like sweet reason (see below). In any case they are starting to resist a policy that was set eight months ago (also below).

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In the eye of the beholder

Deakin University  is running a display advert featuring a comely lass with copy stating, “Deakin is looking for more headturners,” (CMM November 30). Vice Chancellor Jane den Hollander explains it is part of series, “the idea is that there is a pathway to uni for anyone who wants to study.” Good-o, but as a CMM correspondent asks, “so, there is an advertisement for less attractive people who want to study as well?”  Depends what you find attractive.

Watt’s not to like?

There are rave reviews for Dr Watt’s review. Universities Australia head Belinda Robinson described the report as “an astute set of proposals.”

“It is a clear and insightful plan to strengthen the national economic drivers of university research and innovation,” she added.

Regional Universities Network chair and USQ VC Jan Thomas endorsed the core recommendations, providing there are no “significant unintended consequences”. However she wants to see what will be in today’s Innovation Statement. “All parties, universities, industry and government, must play their part in boosting Australia’s innovative capacity.”

The Innovative Research Universities group is also pleased.

“The report gives the government the basis to strike a better balance of incentives for universities to engage with business and other end users of research. We need to maintain our substantial fundamental research capability, whose world class standard has been shown yet again through ERA 2015, and strengthen the value of research for end user,” Executive Director Conor King, (who was on the report working group) said. However the IRU did question dropping publications as one of the inputs determining funding, suggesting that might harm humanities and social science research.

The Group of Eight’s Vicki Thomson warned that Dr Watt’s proposals did not deal with underfunding of indirect research costs under the block grant scheme but she was otherwise enthusiastic. The report “It is yet another welcome example of a new willingness in Australia for all those involved in research policy development and implementation to find a common direction.”

The only strong criticism came from the National Tertiary Education Union, which argued Watt, “reduces the importance of university research to just dollars and cents” by allocating block grants on the basis of research income … (the review) “totally undervalues scholarly research publications and research training.” Welcome to the new age of impact.

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Brailsford goes on and on at Bond

Bond University chancellor Helen Nugent reports the university council has extended VC Tim Brailsford’s term – to 2022. “In a rapidly changing environment, both in Australia and globally, we are very well placed.  This is in no small way due to the leadership of Professor Brailsford,” the chancellor says. Brailsford was appointed in 2012.

Dividend deferred not denied

It seems the government’s attempt to pass Labor’s efficiency dividend did not die in the Senate, last week, as widely reported. Yes, discounts for upfront payments of student loans are gone, and yes start-up scholarships will become income contingent loans. Yes, the Emerson efficiency dividend was removed from the bill. Despite this, the government says, “it remains part of the higher education reform package on which the government is currently consulting.” CMM wonders with whom?

On time

Readers suggest CMM was unkind to point out the National Tertiary Education Union in WA is negotiating an enterprise agreement with the University of Notre Dame for the round just about over everywhere else. This, they say is because private provide UND is on a different cycle. Negotiations for the 2016 agreement will certainly start first in WA’s public universities.

Understated over achievement

Other universities were spinning their ERA outcomes first thing Friday but magisterial Melbourne is above such things. First media statement of the day from the princes and princesses of Parkville was for an exhibition at the university’s art museum. CMM can’t decide if it was appealing modesty or aristocratic indifference to any ranking which compares Melbourne to local institutions and not its peers in the world top 50.

It was the same with the media mandarins at Uni Sydney, which also did very well in ERA – at 10am the ministry of truth was focused on promoting expert comment on the US Defence Department decision to open all combat roles to women. It was not until early afternoon that the university issued a release with the modesty becoming headline. “Quality of UoS research confirmed.” It stated rather than screamed that UoS had held its second place for fields of research rated at five, “well above world standard,” increasing the overall number of them to 41 per cent.

Even the Group of Eight secretariat refrained from pointing out that its members’ collective achievements made the case for Canberra giving the entire research budget to divvy up amongst themselves. Certainly Go8 chief Vicki Thomson pointed out that 99 per cent of members’ research is at ERA four or better with 50 per cent rated at five, well above world standard. But she added, “in this new era of a welcome government focus on the value of university research, the results are confirmation of the sector’s worth to the nation.” With results like that the Eight can afford to include everybody else.

It’s a start

Good for the university media team that made the most of not much, announcing nine “well above world standard” ratings in ERA. Jove, nine! There are 7500 discipline areas rated in ERA and overall universities were awarded 530 top scores. You work with what you have got.

Strategy set

Christopher Pyne has done researchers happy to investigate what the government will fund a big favour by setting out “research opportunities” in the nine priority areas agreed by the Commonwealth Science CouncilCMM April 14). However scientists who believe they should be left to research where curiosity takes them will have conniptions at the Industry and Science Minister’s statement of research opportunities. “Like other countries our capacity to support research is finite. With diverse investments in research across multiple agencies and many processes, we must ensure that we build our capacity to pursue research of particular importance to us as a nation.”

How kind of the government to make it easier for DVC Rs to work out areas to invest in and the Australian Research Council to work out what to fund.

ANU Sep 15 5

Could be worse

There is much gnashing of teeth in the University of Adelaide dentistry school where administrative jobs are set to go as part of a university-wide restructure. But they might not have had a dental school at all if the university had not kicked in capital to fund new teaching facilities at the new Royal Adelaide hospital complex, which opens next year. Without this the university could have lost the state government dental clinic contract, which would have meant a competing school in the state, University of South Australia certainly seemed interested for a while. Without the dental clinic the Uni Adelaide school would have struggled (CMM June 16). CMM hears that around 20 jobs could go, with some staff being absorbed in the university administration.

ERA corrections

In Friday’s email edition the following errors appeared in the ERA coverage.

Swinburne should have appeared in the list of universities rated five for physical sciences.

Victoria U was not pinged with a not-rated for environmental engineering, as reported. This means it was named over ten discipline areas not 11.

CMM is a dolt (but you knew that already).

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au