You do have to feel sorry for the Australian Research Council (ARC). Out of synch with serial ministers and arguably now the sector, they are at best flat-line funded.

The ARC budget to cover most basic and discovery research not only lags the National Health and Medical Research Council, but health and medical now get a further 80 per cent on top. That’s courtesy of the MRFF windfall, with little appetite in Canberra for a comparable fund in non-health translation.

Despite these constraints, the ARC runs the flagship Centres of Excellence and Laureate programmes, has an exemplary peer review process, catalyses industry engagement through the linkage stream, builds our national research capacity, and did a solid job with ERA 18. Their Annual Report and Making a Difference publications point to strong return on our national investment. The bones at least are good.

But if exposure in the international press was a KPI for 2021, the ARC has had a blinder of a year, and not in a good way: the preprints fiasco, overreach in foreign interference, record breaking grant delays, and then to cap off an annus horribilis, further vetoes courtesy of those ministerial god powers. None of this will surprise those who find watching the ARC at Senate Estimates a blood sport.

So why can’t the ARC be more like the NHMRC? The NHMRC does consultation, whereas its almost two years since the last effort from the ARC. The NHMRC can’t compete in delays, nor have they inspired a Twitter Tracker, highly popular for ARC leaks, beefs, and griefs. Then their respective governance models are chalk and cheese, as highlighted in the acting education minister’s recent Letter of Expectations. The NHMRC’s formal structures of a council and principal committees established under the NHRMC Act (1992) contrast with the ad hoc CEO-appointed ARC advisory committee, largely in abeyance in recent times. But be careful what you wish for – even the old  ARC research management system RMS portal is preferable to the NHMRC’s temperamental Sapphire.

The Ashes may offer insights here, where systemic failure by the England team is down not only to the bowling, batting, and fielding, but also management and the selectors. Teamwork is key, as considerable difference in ministerial alignment between the two research councils attests. Indeed, how is the sector now to advise its gutted humanities applicants, who in the absence of feedback need to second guess what the government’s political antipathies will be in a year’s time, let alone who the minister will be.

The recent directions to the ARC may have fuelled this blame game. But the sector should instead welcome the opportunity for a reset, to work together to trail blaze the national interest. That ministerial Letter of Expectations is unprecedented, in part demanding needed reforms, and in part flexing political muscle.

All this, plus CEO  Sue Thomas resigning, will make for an interesting job ad.

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




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