The Australian Academy of the Humanities shares sector concerns about changes to the Australian Research Council (ARC) programs and governance outlined in a Letter of Expectation from Acting Minister for Education & Youth, the Hon. Stuart Robert MP, to ARC CEO Professor Sue Thomas.
The ARC is the single most important source of merit-based research funding for ground-breaking, fundamental research in non-medical fields. As the Minister identified in his letter, our research system underpins the creation of new knowledge which is essential for a thriving advanced democracy, culture and economy.
This research helps us prepare for the unexpected, to better understand who we are as a people and a nation, how we arrived where we are today and where we might be heading – and ways to alter that course where needed.
The Academy acknowledges that government needs to ensure that the nation’s research effort can support work in areas it has identified as priorities for societal or economic development. Short to medium term priorities can and should set the agenda for strategic programs, but this must be appropriately balanced with resourcing longer-term basic research.
Research policy that aims to improve outcomes in one area without keeping the broader system in view risks the overall strength of the system and its potential to deliver social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits to the nation, and its ability to ‘future-proof’ Australia by preparing for the unexpected.
As we seek further clarification of the changes, we highlight some initial concerns for the humanities and the broader research sector raised by the Minister’s letter;
1. The first is the risk to the strength of the broader research system by skewing ARC funding so substantively towards applied research aligned to a narrow set of priorities. The changes to the Linkage Program – which includes the ARC Centres of Excellence, the Industrial Transformation Research Program, the Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF), Linkage Projects and Special Research Initiatives – are far-reaching.
The Minister’s letter signals that 70% will be oriented to National Manufacturing Priorities with, “the remaining Linkage Program allocations in specific cases, such as the Low Emissions Technology Statement, the National Agricultural Innovation Priorities and the Defence Science and Technology Strategy 2030”.
The Linkage Programs support an array of end-user research across a wide range of fields – including connecting researchers with our communities at grass-root levels to support social cohesion and cultural understanding; and to support researcher-industry collaborations across service industries and areas of significant jobs growth, such as the creative economy.
2. We note that the Minister has indicated that Discovery Programs will not be subject to this specific priority direction, but the Academy is concerned with the potential adverse impact of other changes signalled in the Minister’s letter, including the National Interest Test, and the ERA and EI processes on national capacity in key fields.
3. We are also keen to ensure that any changes maintain the independence of the ARC and the rigour of its funding assessment processes. Involvement in ARC committees requires a deep understanding of research and end-user applications, inclusive of business, community and not-for-profit sectors. The independence of the ARC’s leadership and its Advisory Board is vital in order to retain confidence and trust in the institution. It is critical for the quality of the research produced and for the researchers that Australia trains, retains and attracts.
The Australian research funding system is internationally renowned for its integrity and robust processes, and Australia prides itself on free and open critical enquiry. We would welcome the opportunity to engage with the Minister, alongside our colleagues in the other Learned Academies, to ensure these changes do not jeopardise that standing, and that the health and balance of the system delivers, now and in the future, for the Australian community.
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