Many good people are discussing how best to support Australia’s universities.

Plans are proposed to increase opportunities for students and hopefully these will continue to be refined. The other obvious and important priority is covering the full-costs of research (all that the stuff beyond the direct grant supported costs, like test-tubes).

But I want to advocate thinking about staff. The economic impacts of COVID are massive and funds are tight, but I think we have to prioritise a national new-blood appointments scheme for early and mid-career academics as part of any planned stimulus package.

What’s more I’d make it simple by doubling the size of the excellent fellowship schemes we already have. It would be fine to add a new name to establish the importance of the initiative.

The Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Awards and Future Fellowships, and the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) schemes are worth building on.

We could urgently move resources from the Medical Research Future Fund to the NHMRC to support more early and mid-career researchers. We could provide an equal amount to the ARC (via redirection from equipment grants or via the student fee increases that are being debated or by calculating productivity earnings and savings from not having to pay unemployment benefits even – the economists will know more than me about stimulus.

And I would make one change – extend the flexibility that already exists in the ARC research fellowship schemes and actually highlight the importance of fellows teaching. I would also encourage, wherever possible in the NHMRC system, calling them lectureships rather than fellowships.

To me, the Australian research fellowship system has been transformative and at the core of the extraordinary performance and ever-increasing quality in our sector. I also think it is both right and smart to invest in the next generation.

Some of my reasons are obviously old hat, but others may surprise

* Urgency. In Australia and across the world university finances have been hit and the first response has been to pause hiring. The next response will be significant job losses. If we don’t act, I fear the burden of hiring freezes will fall disproportionately on the new generation of aspiring academics and that just isn’t fair. We need to find a way to spread the burden, to act now to support and invest in the next generation.

* The talent available is extraordinary and we should harness as much as we can from Australia and from across the world. For years now there has been a constant refrain that we should promote education more. It has worked. The interest I see is extraordinary. Over the last decade or so enrolments have boomed and the number of PhD students has increased too. The reforms of previous governments in increasing the number of Australian Postgraduate Awards have worked. Now is the time to act to let this talent deliver new ideas and innovations that will fuel our economy and support our society.

* Supporting new ideas and new blood will drive the most significant gains. As Max Planck famously pointed out, old ideas don’t die but thinking advances one funeral at a time. Inertia and stagnation are big traps for society but as our knowledge economies expand to complement traditional activities like mining and agriculture, the renewal we will get in terms of new perspectives and new technologies by making new blood appointments will be immense.

* Nationally coordinated external appointment schemes work to drive up quality. One, little talked about, challenge to quality in academia is in-breeding, but mobility and cross-fertilisation are the antidotes. In Australia a succession of external fellowship schemes, overseen by external peer review agencies, has successfully countered often well-meaning and supportive nepotism networks and brought in new blood and new ideas again and again. I know of no other international sector that has done fellowships better. We should expand these schemes now.

* Fellowship schemes can also drive equity and inclusion. Project grants and even large network projects tend to support established and well-connected players but you can target fellowship schemes to support early career researchers, under- represented groups, regions or any national research priorities, simply by setting up the right categories and providing targeted funding.

* Most importantly, and perhaps most surprising, I believe research fellowships are a great way of supporting pure, basic, fundamental research, and ensuring academic freedom.  I will write more on this in another post but many people are becoming aware that basic research is really suffering and while discussions on academic freedom are complicated I would make the point that freedom is curtailed more by lack of funding than by any oppression that we see in Australia. No one has ever interfered in my research projects, except by not funding some of my planned experiments! I accept that but I do think it is worth having a select group of very high performing fellows who are left free to pursue their own ideas, without being answerable to specific project goals or milestones. That privilege cannot accrue to everyone, but if Australia wants Nobel Prizes, global respect, and to initiate new fields of knowledge it won’t happen by just funding feasible research that is measured against constant incremental translation. So we may want to double the Laureate Fellowship scheme too.

Australia and New Zealand have stunned the world by very effective responses to COVID. In addition, our universities are highly regarded internationally and we are in the Asian hemisphere, poised to take advantage of any boom that may ensue as soon as the east, if not all parts of the west, emerges from the pandemic. Our intellectual tradition, global outlook, and our university sector’s quality is reflected in how many students travel to study with us. On every measure our research has blossomed year after year and has been boosted by top home-grown researchers and others who have moved here to join us.

We can lead again now but we need to be resolute and clear in setting priorities and funding them – even now when money is tight. A new blood scheme would be an impressive step in the right direction that would be noticed worldwide and would deliver. It is time to once again back Australia’s ability.

Merlin Crossley DVC Academic, UNSW


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