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Month: October 2015

Re-imagining a more democratic public university system – part 2

For a while I have been thinking that many of the issues facing the Australian higher education research sector – funding shortfalls, obsession with journal articles and associated article- and author-level metrics, disconnect with the public sphere and low collaboration with the private sector, among others – are compounded by the ‘dual funding’ model.

Government support for research comes in two forms – about half from peer reviewed grants (such as from ARC and NHMRC) and half from research block grants. However, as I have outlined elsewhere, the research block grants are driven 55% by the outcomes of the peer reviewed grants, ostensibly with the logic of offsetting the indirect costs associated with those grants. Meanwhile, income from public and private sector partners barely rates a mention in the allocation formula. This is not the case in many research intensive economies as outlined in Figure 1 .

 

Figure 1 Government funding of R&D in higher education by funding type, 2010 (from OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scorecard 2013)

increasing impact in science figure 2

 

But why does this matter? Well, firstly, it focuses the entire university research endeavour on 3-4 year project cycles, which is not conducive to breakthrough research which often requires long time frames and serendipity. It also minimises universities’ ability to back winners and undertake long term strategic planning of their research agendas, instead preparing for round after round of grant applications.

But, more importantly it forces academics to focus on grant-getting. And grant-getting is predicated on journal article writing to boost ‘track records’. And journal article writing is based on peer review which is based on ‘hermetically-sealed idiom’ with a good dose of gate-keeping. In other words, the funding model rewards academics for turning inward.

It may be argued using market logic that these competitive mechanisms will determine the correct outcomes, but as competitive market-based mechanisms, both individual grants and the block grants are less than competitive: both are predicated on the status quo, block grants through the many inbuilt safety nets, and ARC/NHMRC grants because they are geared towards previous winners who have used ARC/NHMRC grants to increase their track records to make themselves more competitive for further grants ad infinitum.

While grant-getting is the only game in town (both as an end in itself and as the driver of block grant funding) this cycle will perpetuate. I believe that a rebalance of funding that provides greater recognition for income derived from the public and private sectors, and at the same time delivers a larger proportion of funding through (reworked) block grants would go a long way to democratising university research.

Given the potential pool of funding available from the private and public sectors is virtually uncapped there may be additional benefits to this approach, such as addressing the funding crisis for university teaching – research done for and with private and public sector partners tends to get closer to fully funded (i.e. includes on-costs) a greater focus on this may diminish the need to cross-subsidise research from teaching budgets.

It will be interesting to see if any of this comes out in the Watt review

This post is part 2 of an ongoing series on re-imagining a more democratic public university system. Part 1 can be viewed here.

Research Engagement and Creative Arts Research

I was very happy to spend the day with the Deans and Directors of Creative Arts (DDCA) a couple of Wednesdays ago for their annual conference and AGM. There have been some interesting submissions coming from this group to major reviews that are currently underway including the ACOLA Review of the Research Training System and the Watt Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements (lots of credit to Su Baker and Jenny Wilson).

My panel session was dedicated to strategic questions around positioning of Creative Arts research in relation to emerging discussions in research evaluation. For me, one of the most pleasing aspects of our discussions on the day was how comfortable people were with the idea of engaging with research end-users. It seems that a strong grounding in creative-practice makes a focus on research engagement a natural fit; by their very nature performance- and exhibition-based research disciplines are audience/end-user-centric.

The issues I foresee for these disciplines in a research-engagement paradigm have less to do with outlining the importance of research engagement and more to do with how these transactions operate within Creative Arts disciplines. Three key issues are outlined below.

 

Performance and exhibition spaces as research infrastructure – since the introduction of ERA there is widespread acceptance that live performances, original creative works, curated works and recorded/rendered works (can) meet the definition of research. It is no great leap that the galleries, museums and performance spaces that support these research activities are therefore important research infrastructure. Importantly, funding received to support these infrastructure should be submitted as part of the HERDC return for institutions – my sense is that this is a discussion that still needs to be had in a number of institutions. Here is the relevant description from the HERDC guidelines:

Net receipted  income which can be included in the Research Income Return […] grants for specific and specialised equipment used for the conduct of research
In-kind support – in-kind support is a mainstay of Creative Arts research funding , but is not eligible to be submitted under HERDC. There are a few potential approaches to address this:
  • The first is to lobby the Department of Education and Training  for in-kind support to be included in HERDC. I do not know the reasons why this is currently excluded, but I do know that comprehensive records of in-kind support are not recorded widely by universities. Further, my sense is that beyond a line in an ARC Linkage Grant, receipt of in-kind support is not uniformly applied.
  • A more complex approach would be to work closely with funding partners to see if ‘in-kind’ is the appropriate classification for this support, or if there are more appropriate ways to record this support (e.g. ‘donations’, which are eligible under HERDC Category 3 income). I admit to know very little about this, except that it is likely to involve taxation laws and employee arrangements (on both sides of the support) in addition to HERDC rules. Anyway, it is worth asking the question.
  • The most practical, but perhaps least satisfying approach is to accept that existing data (including ARC Linkage grants and Category 2-3 income) will correlate very closely with levels of in-kind support i.e. it would be uncommon to have significant amounts of in-kind support in the absence of financial support (I have no evidence to support this statement, but it can be easily tested by universities). As longs as any use of these data is sensitive to different practices between disciplines then there should be no problem with using financial indicators as a proxy for in-kind support i.e. comparing Category 2-3 Creative Arts research against Medical research is not fair, but comparing Creative Arts Cat 2-3 research income between universities is ok.

Consulting, contracting and commercialsiation – many Creative Arts researchers in academia maintain active professional careers in practice. At present, much of this activity is conducted by individual academics under personal ABN/ACN arrangements, and therefore is not eligible for reporting under HERDC where income has to have been transacted through the university. In some cases this is unavoidable – e.g. where funding bodies only support individuals or corporations (and not universities) – but in some cases there is no technical reason why this is the case. There are possibly very good financial reasons that an academic would choose to receive this income outside of the institution, including that universities usually take a cut of this income to recover costs. I personally contend that if the work is done on the university’s time and/or with their resources (computers, offices, studios etc.) then this income should be transacted through the university, and not through a private company or other arrangement. But that is me, and there are is plenty of room for compromise on such issues within universities. There are likely also some discussions to be had about IP but again universities can be nothing if not flexible on such things.

 

Addressing these three key issues alone will, in my view, hugely benefit Creative Arts research in Australian universities. As far as I can tell, researchers in this field have to address some minor misalignment but overall a focus on research engagement suits the kind of work that they have always done.

 

Putting the ‘public’ back in publicly funded research – UoW postgraduate careers day keynote

photo

I was very happy to deliver the keynote address today at the University of Wollongong Graduate Researcher Careers Conference. My presentation is attached at the bottom of this post for those interested in looking at it.

The take-home messages from my address are summed up below:

  • Remember the ‘public’ in publicly funded research
  • Think about the public who pays for your research and what you give them in return
  • Remember that what you do as a researcher always (sometimes profoundly) changes the world we live in
  • Think about research beyond the walls of the university and beyond the covers of a journal

 

UoW postgrad (ppt)