Red cards are the ultimate sanction in sports but also now in research grant applications. The rules of the game ensure a competitive contest but need to change as skills and technology evolve. What started with villagers kicking a pig’s bladder has become the international soccer league with professional players. Rules have evolved to ensure a fair and exciting game, from adding crossbars to goalposts in 1875 to goal-line technology in 2013.

Last week our national funder, the Australian Research Council gave 32 fellowship applicants a red card for not sticking to a newly introduced rule. Here there was no yellow card, no time out, just the maximum penalty for an arguably minor transgression. The dismissal of their applications, totalling $22m, doesn’t send them off for the match or even a couple of games, it is for a whole year. Indeed given an average 15 per cent success rate and tight application limits, this could well be the end of the road for many a promising academic career.

Academia is renowned for passionate differences of opinion, so it is most unusual that a single procedural hiccough has united the whole sector. ARCgate has attracted scrutiny, both in the Senate and internationally. It is no coincidence that the red cards were all in the physical sciences, where this citing of preprints is not only common practice but failure to do so can be considered unethical.  Physicists have long known that referencing preprints gives others due credit and communicates cutting edge results quickly while under lengthy peer review. Most international bodies have followed suit, allowing, or even encouraging this. So too has the National Health & Medical Research Council, as COVID-19 taught us the importance of rapid communication.

It doesn’t help to dwell on how or why the rule was implemented, or its misalignment with modern publication culture. The important issue now is for the ARC to deal with this problem quickly.

The first priority is the thousands of grant applications currently under review – surely a simple matter for the ARC’s scrutineers to flick the off switch on this rule.

Next, shed some light on those declared ineligible. If most were otherwise fundable, as it seems, they should then be awarded. The comparatively modest sum required would hardly dent the success rate of remaining rounds nor the ARC’s $864m annual budget. If not, at the very least extend their time limits so they are at least on the field for next year’s round.

Finally, sort both the Instructions to Applicants and the Guidelines so they align, and highlight any red flags or kill switches. Transparency is key.

Given the ARC’s admirable track record of handling fair and effective processes, and its valued position in spearheading Australian research, one hopes that this can be resolved with a quick fix. It is important, not only to support the careers of highly skilled early and mid-career researchers pivotal to our national future, but also to alleviate the anxiety of the Australian science community with projects under review.

Time to get our young scientists back on the pitch, free from this focus on footnote folly!

Sven Rogge is President, Australian Institute Physics & Pro Vice Chancellor Research, UNSW Sydney

Nicholas Fisk is Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research & Enterprise), UNSW Sydney


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