The research establishment gets what it wants: The Federal Government’s new approach will insulate Australian Research Council grants from ministerial veto, except in national security cases, as recommended by the Sheil Review of the ARC Act. And grant guidelines will also be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Education Minister Jason Clare announced in a speech Tuesday that all the recommendations from Margaret Sheil (QUT VC) and colleagues are accepted.
Mr Clare specifically mentioned the creation of an ARC board to appoint the agency head and approve funding under the National Competitive Grants Program. The board will be appointed by the Education Minister, in consultation with the Industry and Science Minister.
The Education Minister will also set grant guidelines, “including key areas of national priority” and approve “nationally significant investments” such as centres of excellence.
As for a replacement for ERA: Mr Clare added that he has asked Professor Sheil and colleagues for “some more work” on their recommendation on research evaluation.
The ARC’s monster metric, Excellence in Research for Australia is already gone and the Sheil Review recommended replacing it with an ARC developed “evaluation framework,” “that allows the full impact of research funding to be assessed and the public benefit explained.”
Whatever that might be, Professor Sheil and colleagues explicitly recommended against “a so-called light touch metrics-based exercise” – which sounds like what the O’Kane Accord review has in mind. Professor O’Kane and colleagues suggest “deploying advances in data science to develop a ‘light touch’ automated metrics-based research quality assessment system.”
The choice for Mr Clare will be what measure best meets his need for data on the “impact value” of grants.
What’s a win for the research establishment: Mr Clare has given the lobbies pretty much what they wanted, especially on the totemic issue of independence from political interference. Universities Australia and the Academy of Science were quick to endorse the announcement. As was Science and Technology Australia, which thanked the Government for adopting Professor Sheil and colleagues’ “comprehensive, thoughtful blueprint for ARC modernisation.”
Recognising what could be in it for its members, the Australian Technology Network singled out the importance of more work on performance measures, “we should agree on tangible and achievable priorities for our national research system and the ARC should use its evaluative capabilities to measure the progress towards our shared targets.”
Is good for the government: This is a virtually no-cost way for Mr Clare to secure goodwill from the research community, which might go some way to neutralise anger if, as appears likely, there is no new money for basic research in the Accord.
It also starves the Greens of an opportunity for outrage – Senator Mehreen Faruqi has pitched the party as a friend of researchers by opposing the previous Government’s research funding vetos. That issue is no more.