This chapter provides the background to the Committee’s inquiry and sets out how the report is structured.
On 9 May 2018, the House Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training (the Committee) adopted an inquiry referred by the then Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham. The Committee was asked to inquire into and report on the efficiency, effectiveness and coherency of Australian Government funding for research. The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found on page xi.
The context of the Committee’s inquiry was set out by Minister Birmingham:
For every successful application for competitive research funding, researchers and their partners in universities, industry and the wider community, must spend significant time, energy and resources to apply, whilst significant taxpayer infrastructure is used in assessment processes to ensure research meets the highest standards. Around 80 per cent of applications are unsuccessful.
The Committee is well placed to further Australia's significant research achievements by assessing ways to simplify, streamline and improve funding arrangements.
Setting the scope of the inquiry
The Committee acknowledges that the current system of Australian research funding is complex, involving a range of programs, open to a broad range of agencies and institutions, and characterised by different application processes.
In adopting the terms of reference, the Committee defined the scope of the inquiry, noting it would not examine the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) nor non-federally funded research. Rather, the Committee specified the inquiry would focus on federally funded research agencies, their funding mechanisms and university collaborative research.
The Committee was acutely aware of recent reviews into selected research funding arrangements and systems and sought to avoid revisiting reform already underway. For example, the Committee acknowledges change within the research funding space arising from the:
NHMRC’s structural review of its grant program;
Australian Council of Learned Academies’ review of Australia’s research training system;
Miles Review of the Cooperative Research Centres Programme;
Watt review of research policy and funding arrangements; and
Research and development tax incentive announced in the 2018-2019 budget.
The Committee also acknowledges the continuous and collaborative efforts of Commonwealth funding agencies to improve their research funding processes, reduce administrative burden for applicants, and ensure consistency where possible. For example, the Australian Research Council (ARC) told the Committee:
The ARC works closely with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC, Department of Health), the Cooperative Research Centres Program (Department of Industry) and other agencies across government to share best practice in research grant delivery, to ensure scheme timelines are staggered to minimise the impost on the sector and to facilitate a consistent approach to data collection.
Given that some complex funding arrangements are currently undergoing reform, and new processes are being introduced across the research sector, the Committee was careful to avoid further duplication of efforts, or confuse stakeholders around research funding issues more broadly. It therefore sought to examine ways to streamline and simplify application and assessment processes, particularly for the university sector.
Specifically, the Committee sought to examine ways to reduce red tape, and to help reduce the time and effort spent by researchers applying for funding. By improving the administration of application and assessment processes, it is envisaged that researchers will have more time to conduct innovative and collaborative research. Research which ultimately drives Australia’s economic and social prosperity, and reinforces our reputation for producing world-class research.
Research funding principles
A commitment to clearly defined research funding principles is fundamental to a healthy and robust funding system. Research funding principles should not only underpin how research funds are administered, but they should also guide future development of the system.
The Committee fully supports the principles succinctly articulated by the Academy of Science:
The Academy of Science supports a research funding environment that is fair and equitable, rigorous and transparent, strongly based on scientific merit and geared towards scientific excellence, accessible to researchers without undue administrative burden, stable enough to develop long-term research strengths, flexible enough to support innovative research pathways and sufficient to allow a research career to develop from PhD and early-career research through to research leaders. Continuity and a career for researchers are really important.
Similar principles were promoted in other submissions to the inquiry.
The Committee called for written submissions when it announced its inquiry on 10 May 2018. In total, 97 submissions were received. A list of these submissions can be found at Appendix A.
Some submissions to the inquiry called for the Committee to give any recent changes to the research funding system time to be implemented and evaluated before introducing further change. The Committee is mindful that the impact of any new arrangements may not be known for some time.
The Committee held four public hearings for its inquiry. Table 1.1 lists the dates and locations of these hearings.
Table 1.1: Public hearing schedule.
30 July 2018
6 August 2018
7 August 2018
20 August 2018
Source: House Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training.
For each public hearing, the Committee convened two roundtables. One roundtable was held for universities, and a second roundtable was held for other research organisations, institutions and associations. Transcripts for all public hearings can be found on the Committee’s website.
A list of witnesses who appeared at the roundtable discussions can be found at Appendix B.
The Committee held private briefings with three Commonwealth agencies, including the:
Department of Education and Training;
National Health and Medical Research Council; and
Australian Research Council.
The Department of Education and Training and the ARC also provided written submissions to the inquiry.
Structure of the report
This report is structured into five chapters:
Chapter one is this introduction.
Chapter two provides an overview of Australia’s research funding system. In particular, it provides a breakdown of Australian Government investment in research across Commonwealth portfolios and research sectors.
Chapter three discusses university research funding. It introduces the dual funding system used to support university research and identifies ways to simplify and streamline application and assessment processes.
Chapter four identifies some specific capacity and collaboration issues regarding research funding in Australia. This includes challenges for early and mid-career researchers, regional universities and other research providers. Barriers to interdisciplinary research are also highlighted.
Chapter five considers more strategic issues related to Australian research investment, including long term planning, research performance, and levels of investment. The costs associated with publishing research are also discussed.
Two appendices are included in this report. They are:
Appendix A: Submissions; and
Appendix B: List of Hearings and Witnesses.
The Committee would like to thank everyone who provided written submissions, appeared at public hearings, and briefed the Committee for its inquiry.