Research metrics: the measure is money

Thunderous applause did not drown out discussion of the detail in yesterday’s Australian Research Council announcement of impact and engagement metrics. Commentators suggested that the plan was an unhappy combination of the government’s push for research focused on the needs of “businesses and families” and the research lobbies determination to spend as much money as they want on what they want.

“The ARC is in a holding pattern with this, it will not go far,” an observer with decades of research policy expertise told CMM. “If the government wants to improve university-industry collaboration it needs to change research and development funding,” the expert argues, pointing to the government’s failure to address the Fraser, Finkel Ferris review of the R&D tax incentive delivered to the industry minister before last, before last.

But yesterday discussion of research engagement and impact was in the context of overall university funding cuts now that it is clear the government’s savings legislation is without Senate support. The day started with mocking tabloid coverage of humanities research without economic impact. Education Minister Simon Birmingham then told Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young on Adelaide radio, “you might love esoteric little papers, but we actually think that it is important that billions of taxpayer dollars going into research deliver things that are of benefit to taxpayers. Now, that does include better healthcare services, better education services, as well as improved areas in terms of commercialisation and jobs growth.”

By lunchtime Universities Australia’s Belinda Robinson was saying it is, “disappointing to see media reports that seek to diminish the research endeavour when there is so much there for every Australian to be proud of. The research funding system involves extensive peer review, such that 80 per cent of applicants are not funded. This means that only the very best research is funded.”

Both were positioning themselves for the next funding fight, which will start before Christmas. With no chance of securing savings in the Senate the government has two ways of cutting higher education spending, capping money for student load (which universities use to cross-subsidise research) and a direct cut to research allocations. The government needs to demonstrate that it is working to make research economically relevant but before this kicks-in there is spending that can be stopped. The universities must show that every funded project is a gem. They have until the mid year economic forecast, expected in December, to makes their cases.


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