A central online system for Commonwealth grant programs?

December 20, 2018

In May this year, then Minister for Employment, Education and Training the Hon Senator Simon Birmingham made a surprise announcement of a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s research funding system.

The inquiry’s terms of reference excluded health and medical research but encompassed all other Commonwealth research funding bodies, including the Australian Research Council, the rural research and development corporations, and Australia’s international funding programs. There was a strong emphasis on options to improve efficiency and reduce administrative burden.

This announcement was generally welcomed by the sector.

The Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training was chaired by Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming and comprised MPs from both parties and the crossbench.

The consultation process received 97 submissions (see the submissions from the Academy and the EMCR Forum) and included four public hearings in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Responses centred broadly on the challenges of excess administrative burden and the quantum of research funding available.

The Committee’s report was tabled in Parliament on 27 November, making the following 15 recommendations:

  1. A single, cross-agency research management system, linking to and pre-populating from existing records (for example, ORCID IDs), with uniform guidelines and documentation, and with a two-stage application process (expression of interest followed by full application)
  2. A ‘risk-based approach’ to post-award variations, allowing universities to make minor changes without seeking approval
  3. Introduction of smaller grant funding programs to support pilot and proof-of-concept studies
  4. Strengthening the existing peer-review system by providing better training to reviewers, and more detailed feedback to unsuccessful applicants
  5. A review of research block grants with a view to better supporting indirect costs of research
  6. Allowing non-university research organisations (TAFE, public research agencies and independent medical research institutes) to access competitive grant programs
  7. Re-weighting assessment criteria and grant programs to better support early- and mid-career researchers
  8. Annual reporting on participation of under-represented groups in grant programs
  9. Better mechanisms to support interdisciplinary research
  10. Consider a public portal to facilitate academia–industry partnerships
  11. A future inquiry to examine international strategies, incentives and models to promote academia–industry collaboration
  12. Development of a strategic approach to Australia’s open scholarship environment
  13. Changing the reporting frequency for the ERA and Engagement and Impact Assessment (EIA) programs from three to five years, and reviewing the programs to reduce cost and administrative burden on universities
  14. A strategic review of Australia’s R&D investment to identify key research priorities, better national and international coordination and adequate investment, including consideration of a ‘future or translation fund for non-medical research’
  15. Consideration of Australian investment in international research funds such as Horizon Europe.

These are broad recommendations, and despite a number of issues being suggested for further review, if adopted they would have significant impacts on Australia’s research sector.

Many are  aligned with the Academy and the EMCR Forum submissions to the review, and to the Academy’s recently-released science policy platform Earning our Future and our 2019 election statement.

The Government has not yet formally responded to the Committee’s report and recommendations.

The executive group of the Academy Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. One of the recommendations of the report is to re-weight assessment criteria and grant programs to better support early- and mid-career researchers.

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