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.
Early and mid-career researchers
The future of Australia’s research sector depends on the availability of a strong and talented pool of researchers. Investing in early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs) is therefore imperative.
The Committee heard that the current research funding arrangements can be difficult for EMCRs to compete and establish careers. Rather than encourage, support and develop Australian research capabilities, the current system can discourage researchers from the sector, or contribute to researchers looking for opportunities overseas.
This view was articulately expressed by the Australian Academy of Science EMCR Forum (the EMCR Forum) when it noted the concerns of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) researchers in establishing and sustaining research careers:
This encompasses uncertainty about how to collaborate across and move between different sectors, fears about the casualisation of contracts and job stability, issues affecting the ability of emerging researchers to access funding allocated through competitive processes, and concerns about the subsequent impact of these factors on mental health and wellbeing.
Similar issues were identified by Professional Scientists Australia in its survey of researchers in the medical research institute (MRI) sector.
The EMCR Forum also provides a good overview of the issues consistently raised in evidence to the Committee regarding the impact of the current research funding arrangements on EMCRs. These issues include administrative burden, funding bias, workforce casualisation, and barriers to cross sector mobility and collaboration.
Administrative burden: EMCRs feel that the time spent applying for competitive research grants not only means less time to conduct research, but it does not represent reward for effort. The problem is compounded by the low success rates which results in researchers completing multiple applications across various schemes to fund the same project.
Funding bias: particular groups are under-represented across grant funding including EMCRs, women and minorities. This results in under-represented groups spending more time completing and applying for grants. The flow-on effects are significant. More time applying for grants means less time conducting research; research which is required to demonstrate track record; track record that is needed to support a competitive application. This situation may not only discourage people from applying but discourage researchers from the sector altogether.
Workforce casualisation: a lack of job security can contribute to the loss of highly skilled research talent. In addition, it can present significant barriers to research, affect long term projects and planning, and discourage risk taking and innovation in research.
Barriers to cross sector mobility and collaboration: industry partners may be discouraged from research collaboration when the current environment is characterised by protracted funding cycles, a lack of agility and government ‘red tape’.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) also noted the risk of insecure employment within universities on researchers. In its submission, the NTEU discusses ‘taylorisation’ (a specific term referring to specialisation) of university work. It notes that greater specialisation of positions within the university sector is coupled with greater use of insecure (casual and limited term contracts) employment. While this model might provide universities with more flexibility and opportunities to create efficiencies, the NTEU questions whether this is in the best medium to long term interests of the sector, particularly for attracting the best researchers, specifically that:
… one of the most critical issues which needs to be addressed in relation to efficiency and effectiveness of public investment in research and development within the higher education sector, is to ask whether the current funding arrangements for universities more generally ensure they are in a position to offer academic researchers rewarding and secure careers.
A lack of engagement and development of EMCRs can threaten the future of Australia’s research investment and the nation’s ability to innovate and grow. A further issue arises if researchers pursue opportunities overseas. The challenge is then to attract researchers back to Australia to engage and contribute more locally to the sector.
The focus on chief investigators and track record when assessing grant applications was identified as particularly problematic for EMCRs, as well as other research groups. This is because EMCRs tend to juggle teaching and administrative duties, which leaves them less time to conduct research. They are therefore not well positioned to build and demonstrate a track record which is needed to be competitive.
The University of Notre Dame highlighted track record as an impediment for a range of researchers. It noted:
Emphasis on track records acts as an obstacle for researchers from a variety of groups including newer academics, part-time researchers, academics with significant teaching commitments, and women and men with carer responsibilities. The ARC’s 2016-2017 report references those groups that perform poorly within the National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP): just 27 per cent were female researchers, 12 per cent were early-career researchers, and 1 per cent were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. Researchers from regional or remote campuses, who are often affiliated with smaller universities, are also disadvantaged.
The issue is said to be compounded when the current system becomes a self-fulfilling one that reinforces the success of the same researchers. For example, the Ecological Society of Australia noted that while it is important to ensure that researchers have the requisite skills and experience to undertake a proposed endeavour, track records lead:
… to perverse outcomes, including a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where the only researchers to be funded are those who have been funded previously, and have thus had the opportunity to establish a lengthy ‘track record’.
The University of Canberra made a similar point, and also acknowledges that this not only disadvantages new researchers but creates a risk-averse research system.
The system has become a self-perpetuating ‘success breeds success’ model, rendering it very difficult for ‘newbies’ to enter. This conservative approach of supporting researchers who have been tried and tested in turn means we have in place a funding system that is risk-averse and shies away from supporting pioneering projects.
In addition, focusing on track record and the need to publish articles may discourage researchers from seeking research collaborations and other opportunities with industry and government. This is because of the perception that such engagement may be detrimental to the long term career prospects of EMCRs.
Issues associated with track record have resulted in many people calling for a reweighting or reemphasis of the criteria away from track record and institutional reputation to the strength and potential impact of the research proposal itself. Such a shift would ensure that it is the best ideas and proposals that are being assessed, rather than focusing on the people involved. As stated by the University of Notre Dame:
… prioritisation of track records has a broader impact on the innovation and diversity of projects, not just researchers. There needs to be more weighting given to the dynamism, value and impact of the individual project itself, not merely the person or institution proposing it. Assessment panels need to better consider the prospective value of research in their deliberations.
Evidence to the inquiry highlighted a need to better support EMCRs as well as other under-represented groups to not only level the competitive playing field, but to ensure there is greater diversity in research. This includes diversity of researchers, ideas and approaches within the sector.
Improving opportunity for EMCRs
In its submission to the inquiry, the EMCR Forum suggested the following reforms:
decrease the length of applications and adopt a central online system for applications;
expand the interpretation of successful track record to encompass diverse career pathways and decrease the relative weighting of track record in favour of project quality, innovation, benefit and feasibility;
monitor and report on funding success rates for under-represented minorities and reward institutions who implement successful minority and diversity policies;
expand the Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE) framework to include factors that affect the ability of under-represented minorities to establish a competitive track record;
allow academic and government staff to hold joint appointments or spend time working in industry to build collaboration and relevant research outputs; and
mandate real flexible working options with minimum employment terms.
Professor Duncan Ivison from the University of Sydney also supported encouraging funding agencies to publish data on the distribution of their grants across regional, rural, gender and other under-represented groups.
Many submissions to the inquiry advocated for better support of EMCRs to establish and develop their careers. In these submissions, two consistent themes emerged—less emphasis on the investigator and track record, and more targeted funding for EMCRs.
For example, Dr Mathew Lewsey and his colleagues proposed that:
… the Investigator(s) category should contribute a much lower proportion of an application’s final score. Importantly, there should be a separate category to assess potential of early-to-mid career applicants, to provide them a positive weighting on their final score and enable them to compete with senior researchers. The metric for the research output of early career researchers should also give more weight to the quality of outcomes rather than quantity, as it is currently the case.
The authors drew the Committee’s attention to the process used by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The Council applies a positive weighting to grant applications of early career researchers who have never received funding. New applicants therefore have approximately double the likelihood of success in their first application compared to those who have been previously funded.
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) also recommended allocating more points to proposals that name at least one early career researcher and reserving some research funding for applications led by junior researchers. In addition, Ms Natasha Abrahams, President of CAPA highlighted the vulnerability of EMCRs to be removed from research projects following post award budgetary considerations, and recommended the retention of EMCRs in these circumstances.
Changing the method of awarding fellowships was identified as a good way to better support EMCRs. For example, QIMR Berghofer specifically recommends that ‘professorial-level researchers should be ineligible to compete for fellowships that are designed for early- and mid-career researchers’. This recommendation follows concern about the availability of career development awards to senior university appointments. QIMR Berghofer argues that this not only makes it difficult for EMCRs to compete for the awards, but research institutions have to increasingly support younger researchers with their own funding.
Similarly, Professor Andre Luiten also recommended reform of fellowship awards. Specifically, he suggests the introduction of a fourth ARC fellowship scheme aimed at early-career researchers who are less than three years out of their PhD, and better research support for Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) fellowships. Professor Luiten also suggests that non-tenured staff should be eligible to apply for ARC fellowships given current staff already have secure employment.
The Committee notes a range of other strategies suggested to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in the competitive grants process. For example, Science and Technology Australia urged the introduction of diversity quotas, gender application limits, de-identifying applications, limiting publication records, and restricting Emeritus Professors from inclusion on grant applications.
Furthermore, discussing the under-representation of women in senior STEM roles, Dr Janine Pickering stated that ‘we need to change how productivity is defined and how work is organised’. In particular, Dr Pickering suggests that ‘Australia should move away from a centralised grants system focused on individual scientists and toward block funding whole institutions’. This would offer research institutions greater flexibility to manage research, resources, staff, and to support and promote diversity within these institutions.
The Committee fully supports the development of EMCRs as well as a capable and diverse research sector.
Regional and smaller universities were also identified as being disadvantaged by the current funding system. Specifically, the Committee was told that the current system favours the same universities:
In the current research environment, a limited number of universities control the bulk of the research funding from the government in both the competitive and Research Block Grant areas due to a history of success; this success is compounded year-on-year which sets the younger universities at an enduring disadvantage. The current grant assessment processes exacerbate these disparities; there is a culture of lead universities retaining all or the biggest portion of the grant with other universities with collaborating project members being overlooked.
Distance from more populated areas, fewer research and support staff, and generally less revenue contribute to the challenges for regional universities in securing adequate funding for research. Southern Cross University set out some of these challenges in its submission. For example it noted:
the relative age and location of the university appears to influence its ability to secure different funding streams from diverse sources;
its geographic isolation from collaborators often requires significant investment in time and travel costs which are not always covered by grant funding; and
the competitive funding system and national reporting frameworks place a significant workload burden on smaller universities which is challenging to absorb.
Murdoch University shared a similar view regarding the cost of administration, noting that the ‘administration burden affects smaller institutions disproportionately because of the minimum ‘fixed costs’ in effectively managing research administration’.
The Menzies School of Health Research also noted the challenges of the dual funding system for agencies in regional areas. In its submission, it lists the additional expenses that are associated with conducting ‘meaningful’ Indigenous health research. In particular, they note the burden of covering the shortfall of indirect research costs ‘is often heaviest for institutes based in regional or remote areas, where external funding options are limited’. They further note that they spend a ‘disproportionate amount of time and resources raising money to cover this funding gap’.
Strategies put to the Committee to improve the competitiveness of regional universities included introducing:
a new competitive funding program for rural and regional universities or to support regional research;
a target (20 per cent) for Commonwealth-commissioned research and consulting to take place through regionally based universities;
a regional loading for block grant funding, similar to that provided under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme; and
tied university fellowships to ensure that successful applicants are not recruited by other research institutions.
Collaborative Research Networks
Some regional and outer-metropolitan universities are strong research organisations in their own right—institutions like Deakin, Newcastle and Wollongong Universities. Others have traditionally focused on teaching and learning, but have research strengths they can build on. Working with larger universities that have a depth of research excellence enables a less research-intensive university to access new knowledge, facilities and networks. To address this the Commonwealth introduced the Collaborative Research Networks (CRN) program to help smaller and regional universities develop their research capacity by teaming up with other institutions.
The CRN program was extremely successful. An independent mid-term review found that it substantially exceeded its targets in relation to four out of five objectives, and that the value of grants won increased by 85 per cent (see Box 4.1).
Box 4.1: Indicative achievements of the CRN program, as at May 2014
Prior to CRN 81 research Masters and PhD students were engaged in the identified areas of research. As of May 2014, this had increased to 219, significantly exceeding the target of 155.
The number of journal papers published by CRN supported research groups increased from a baseline of 20 to 157 in May 2014, exceeding the target of 125 journal publications.
As of May 2014, CRN participants had submitted 370 joint grant applications, up from a baseline of 26 and more than double the target of 139.
The number of successful joint grant applications by CRN participants was also more than double the target, with 39 successes compared with a target of 15 and a baseline of 1.
By May 2014, $4.3 million of grants had been won, which was somewhat below the target of $5.4 million, but nevertheless an 85 per cent increase over the baseline of $2.6 million.
Source: ACIL Allen Consulting, Mid Term Programme Evaluation – Collaborative Research Networks, April 2015, p. ii.
The review found that CRN ‘helped develop research capacity by enabling a sustainable framework for the establishment of collaborative research consortia that should facilitate a more robust research and innovation system’.
The CRN program ceased in June 2016, and was not replaced.
The Committee supports the discussion and recommendation of the recent Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation which recommended that the Australian Government strengthen the role of, and better support, regional universities as pivotal institutions for social and economic development in regional areas.
To demonstrate its support of EMCRs and strong regional universities, the Committee makes the following recommendations:
The Committee recommends targeted support for early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs). This support should include but not be limited to:
reweighting of criteria and metrics for EMCRs to reflect career stages of researchers, and favour the strength of the research proposal rather than track record;
awarding more points to proposals that include EMCRs;
reform of specific grants and fellowships to better support EMCRs; and
where post award budgetary constraints impact on research projects, that EMCRs are not removed from projects, and continue to be supported.
The Committee recognises the importance of under-represented groups. It recommends that:
peer reviewers are mindful of under-represented groups including EMCRs, Indigenous researchers, women, minority groups and rural and regional universities; and
funding agencies monitor and report annually on grant funding success rates for under-represented groups.
An emerging issue in evidence to the Committee was that the current research funding system does not adequately support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, which can also be a barrier to collaboration. This is because it is either not clear which grant funding programs will support inter and multidisciplinary projects or these projects do not neatly fit into existing schemes. As such, it was suggested that there is a tendency for these projects to be overlooked or fall through the cracks.
The ARC Centre for Excellence for Climate Extremes stated that the current research system has evolved to ‘disincentivise collaboration’ and it also ‘remains hard to win research funding for genuinely interdisciplinary research’. It explained that:
… solving a problem like climate change requires physical science (physics, fluid dynamics, chemistry, physics and so on), engineering, law, economics and behavioral sciences, wrapped in policy-relevance. Such a proposal would cross all ARC panels and would almost certainly fall between those panels. The most impactful proposals are therefore at most risk of not being properly assessed.
The Centre recommends the development of a national long term research strategy, and a review of funding to ‘highlight duplication, overlaps, conflicting data/tool investment’ in this area.
The same views were expressed by the University of Western Sydney, noting that ‘the call for inter and multidisciplinary projects has increased in recent years’, however these ‘highly innovative projects suffer because of their interdisciplinary qualities’. This is because ‘multi and interdisciplinary projects struggle to fit the assessment model under existing ARC panels’.
The Council of Academic Public Health Institutions Australasia (CAPHIA) also discusses the problem of funding interdisciplinary research under the current research funding system:
… it places these researchers at a significant disadvantage, as reviewers of both funding schemes decide that interdisciplinary research is more appropriately funded by the other agency. Given the broad and interdisciplinary nature of much public health research, these issues about the purview of different agencies can mean that valuable projects are ineligible for funding from any agency. In other cases it can be unclear the relevant type or source of funding for a public health research project.
The CAPHIA also notes that this can place an unnecessary administrative burden on universities as they spend time and energy determining eligible funds, and preparing applications which will be unsuccessful.
Submissions called for clearer guidelines and mutually exclusive guidelines between the grant funding bodies and schemes to ensure that inter and multidisciplinary research is submitted to the right place, and managed by the right research panel. In addition, it was suggested that a combined ARC and NHMRC Committee be established to determine which agency would consider such applications. This would remove the need for researchers to decide, and to spend time applying to different schemes to ensure the research proposal is considered.
The Committee recommends the introduction of mechanisms to better support interdisciplinary research. This includes:
clearer guidelines on the type of research to be supported by each scheme;
the establishment of a point of contact or panel to assist researchers determine which funding scheme will support interdisciplinary research; and
stronger consideration of interdisciplinary research as an important field to be supported and accommodated.
The Committee explored the issue of ‘near misses’ in its roundtable discussions. Near misses refer to those competitive grant proposals that are of high quality and fundable, but do not receive funding in the round.
The current research funding system adopts an all or nothing approach to funding. That is, if a researcher is successful, they will receive government funding; if they are unsuccessful, they have to find other funding opportunities.
The Committee heard that if a proposal is not successful in a competitive round, it may still attract funding through other means. Potential avenues for near miss research projects might include:
applications being revised and resubmitted for the following round;
applications being repurposed for other funding schemes;
universities supporting the research through other revenue; and
obtaining funding through third parties such as industry or philanthropic donations.
Evidence to the Committee on ‘near miss’ funding highlighted the broader issue of industry collaboration. In particular, how to attract and engage with industry and other parties in a collaborative partnership.
One suggestion put to the Committee for attracting third party investment was the creation of a public portal similar to the European Commission’s Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS). The idea of the portal is to share information about near miss projects as a means to attract funding and research partnerships. As described by Professor Brigid Heywood, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research at the University of Tasmania:
…if you’re alpha and funded with an industry partner, then it’s an opportunity for that kind of research. You can nominate to have that kind of research put up in a public portal and then others can see that that was a highly rated proposal, possibly with a partner but still needing some additional funding because it didn’t get picked up in the funding round. Others might come in and go, ‘Well, actually, we’re very interested in that topic. We’d like to pick that up and partner with it’.
Discussions at the Committee’s public hearings highlighted some issues for consideration if a similar model were introduced in Australia. Some of these considerations include the risks associated with publishing research proposals and ideas on a public site; potential changes to peer-reviewed proposals when other partners are included or substituted; and the broader issue of how research projects should be funded.
A further risk of devaluing the relationship with third parties was also identified, particularly if industry and donors might be seen as an ‘afterthought’. As explained by Professor Kathryn McGrath, Vice-Chancellor, Research at the University of Technology Sydney:
… one of the things that is embedded in that relationship with donors and industry is that you are actually not just valuing the money that they are going to give you; you are valuing their expertise and knowledge base. If the government were to start to explore this from a position of ‘You’re now going to come and fix our problem of short funding by funding our near misses,’ then we are devaluing what they bring and just saying they’re just a money tree.
Professor McGrath further cautioned that ‘we really need to be careful that we don’t lose that full understanding of what the value of each of the parties is within the research sector.’
The Committee’s attention was drawn to the suggestion that the near miss portal is ‘at the wrong point’. Rather than something that is used after the application process – and a perceived ‘afterthought’– it was suggested that it be used at the start of the process. Mrs Lyn McBriarty, Strategic Advisor, Office of the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Newcastle observed:
You’re actually trying to marry the partners of the academia up before the application, so you’re actually getting a stronger, well-thought-through application before it gets to that end point.
The Committee sees the potential of a public portal to improve industry collaboration and to increase overall research and development (R&D) investment.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government explore the feasibility of a public portal—similar to that adopted by the European Commission—to facilitate partnerships between research institutions, industry, and other strategic partners.
The Committee recommends that any feasibility study be undertaken in consultation with the research sector to identify and manage any potential risks.
Improving industry collaboration
The Committee heard that industry collaboration is important to the research sector for two main reasons. It contributes to the development of ideas and innovation and the sharing of expertise and infrastructure. And secondly, it increases financial investment in research.
The Committee also heard that the current research and funding system is a barrier to industry collaboration. In his submission to the inquiry, Professor Adrian Manning noted the research funding process is problematic for potential industry partners:
The pedantic and excessively long application process is particularly problematic for industry partners. Many simply don’t understand why the process is the way it is, because in many sectors outside academia, such a process would never be acceptable. The current system risks alienating potential funders of research.
The Australian Academy of Science made a number of recommendations in its submission for improving the interface between the academic and industry sectors. These include:
establishing a central point of access for industry and commercial organisations to connect to the knowledge, expertise, services and facilities available from Australian universities and research institutes (for example, Scotland’s Interface Program);
increasing collaborative funding arrangements, including introducing a collaboration premium for the R&D tax incentive; and
strengthening Industry Growth Centres, expanding inter-sectoral mobility, and growing the Co-operative Research Centre program.
Similar suggestions were made in other submissions to the inquiry. For example, the Group of Eight advocated for a collaboration premium in the R&D tax incentive to encourage business to work with universities and other publicly funded research institutions.
Scotland’s Interface Program was highlighted as a successful model that connects business with academic expertise. According to its website, Interface was established in 2005 and:
works with businesses of all sizes, in all sectors, to match them to Scotland’s world-leading academic expertise to help them grow;
has established and efficient processes to save time and money in finding and accessing academic expertise, research, technologies, specialist facilities and funding;
facilitates clusters of businesses and academics working together to tackle industry sector challenges leading to transformational outcomes and impacts;
helps organisations to become more competitive, enabling them to increase their profits, maximise their export potential and ultimately become more sustainable; and
helps organisations to access a range of funding options to offset the cost of their project.
The Committee sees value in this approach, particularly as a possible means to overcome some of the difficulty industry may have in identifying potential collaborative partnerships and funding opportunities.
The Committee notes the collaboration premium was a recommendation of the Review of the R&D Tax Incentive.
The Committee recommends closer examination of models, strategies and incentives, including those used internationally, to increase industry collaboration with universities and other publicly funded research institutions.
The Committee recommends the Australian Government consider this issue for a future parliamentary inquiry.