Stringent new guidelines of the Australian Research Council (ARC) will move funding away from ‘wasteful’ areas (predominantly in arts and social sciences) to spend on medical research. Just a month ago, Australia's Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, proposed extra investments in both STEM education and humanities.
The chair of the National Tertiary Education Union likened the government plans to North Korea, underlining the importance of universities’ autonomy. She said on Universities World News that there were good reasons for the Australian Research Council to be independent.
“To suggest that any research projects which have been through a rigorous competitive peer-reviewed application process could in any way be described as ‘wasteful’ is an insult to the hundreds of senior researchers who give freely of their time to assess the thousands of research applications the ARC receives each year.”
Fallen off the radar
In The Australian, the deputy vice-chancellor Les Field (University of NSW) said support for facilities such as the Australian Synchrotron, telescopes and Antarctic research ships, had "simply fallen off the radar. This has been a crisis, averted by band-aid solutions for years," he said.
Premier Abbott had promised his voters to reverse the Labor policies of the last six years, including policies targeted at climate change. Science & Technology Australia (representing 68,000 Australian scientists and technologists) published the following statement on their website:
Independence of research funding crucial
“Scientists around the nation are profoundly concerned by news today that a Coalition Government would interfere in Australia’s independent system of research-grant funding. Science & technology Australia (STA) CEO Catriona Jackson said: "The Coalition Government has this afternoon confirmed it would, if elected, re-prioritise funding through the nation’s key independent granting body Australian Research Council (ARC)."
Specific research projects – all in the arts and social sciences – have been labeled ‘increasingly ridiculous’. But scientists know that the flow of new knowledge is critical to the kinds of ‘real word’ results that all Australians are proud of, and that the Coalition is calling for. It was CSIRO scientist John O’Sullivan’s search for exploding black holes that led to his discovery of wireless technology that has swept the world, and earned Australia $500 million in royalties with probably as much again to come.
Australians should ask: Do we want politicians picking and choosing which grant proposals deserve funding?
The Coalition statement raises a number of critical questions:
• How would the new grants process work?
• Who would make the final funding call?
• How much would this new process cost, and would it simply add another political or bureaucratic layer?
Scientists and research funding agencies understand that Governments set priorities for research and that this is entirely valid given we do not have the resources to fund everything.Priority setting is very different from political picking and choosing.
Only a quarter of research grant bids that go to the ARC each year are successful. Only the best of the very best get through the very careful peer review, expert-driven process.
STA is the peak group for the nation’s 68,000 scientists and those working in technology. STA’s mission is to bring together scientists, governments, industry and the broader community to advance the role, reputation and impact of science and technology in Australia."