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Category: Research funding

How diverse are our academic interests?

There is a sense among many of the people I speak to at the moment that we have an opportunity to make transformational changes to the higher education sector in Australia. Between the review of research training, review of higher education research funding and the government’s upcoming innovation statement there is certainly a lot going on.

Throw into the mix global moves towards open access and a general discontent with the corporatisation of  publicly funded research – publisher pay walls etc. – and unprecedented scrutiny over the role of things like peer review, how we measure and value research and the basic social function of publicly funded research, and it really does seem like an exciting time.

But how likely are we to agree on what this change should look like and what the direction of the Australian higher education sector should be? My time working in university research policy has taught me that it is difficult to deliver a consensus on most issues, and that there are diverse competing interests.

The latest figures indicate that there are around 102,000 full time equivalent staff in the sector – about 44,000 on the academic scale and the remaining 58,000 on non-academic duties. To put that in perspective, you could fit the Australian university workforce in the stands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

If one were to gauge the diversity of that crowd by the number of representative and peak bodies that exist, they would get the impression that this is indeed a very diverse group.

First, there are 39 universities. Many of these universities have banded together under the umbrella of a cohort – we have the Go8, the ATN, the IRU and the RUN.

Within the universities there are disciplines which tend to be represented nationally by a Dean’s group – there are around 23 of these give or take. Many of the Dean’s groups tend to have sub-committees and groups, such as the Research Directors, etc.

The disciplines also have the Academies – the four Learned Academies (ASSA, AAH, AAS and ATSE) plus the four academies are joined through ACOLA.

Then there is Universities Australia and the various sub-groups therein (such as the DVCRs). Then the NTEU. Then groups like BHERT and ARMS and the list goes on and on and on! And almost all of these groups (plus many others) will have made submissions to each of the reviews currently underway, making a claim for unique interests that need to be represented.

Are the interests of the academic workforce in Australia really so diverse? And if so, why?

At some level, we are all working towards a few common goals, which include advancing and transmitting knowledge. And the way we understand this and do this doesn’t really differ from place to place – research and teaching at James Cook University looks pretty much the same as at the University of Western Australia. Nor does it change much from discipline to discipline – how we research and teach in social science is not that different to how we teach and research in, say, engineering.

Many of us know each other – we have worked together, met at conferences, served on review panels together, shared students, have mutual friends – and we would agree that we are not all that different from each other.

Then why would there appear to be so many competing interests?

I can account for much of this in two factors: first, academic work has always been a competitive sport where elites compete for prestige and resources and where demarcating differences between academic communities is the name of the game. The proliferation of more and more niche journals and the existence of Learned Academies and Societies are evidence enough of his.

Second, this is reflected back on the workforce in the mechanisms that govern academic work in Australia – from the market instruments of block funding to the national competitive grants programs, to the focus on elite discipline-based journals as the final destination of research. At each level of governance the focus is on competition.

These two factors make for a vicious circle in which competing interests flourish; what it masks is our shared goals and common interests. I would argue that a focus on the former has hindered our national research capacity, while recognising and building a future based on the latter would be to the benefit of all Australians, not just our university workforce.

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.

Correlating SRE allocations with ARC grants

I saw this yesterday and couldn’t help but grab some Australian data to have a look. Below I have simply plotted the project dollars awarded to each Australian university by ARC for the years 2008-2010 against each university’s allocation under the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) Threshold 2 component of the Research Block Grants since 2012. The reasons for choosing these data are as follows:

I have added a linear trend line and some 95% prediction intervals – nothing fancy. But that is a good looking line!

SRE Threshold 2 vs ARC projects funding

Now in the UK case, the question has been posed

If the funding allocated to universities on the basis of the REF is correlated to the amount of grant income universities already receive, what is the point of the output assessment process?

But in Australia I tend to think about it differently – yes, those institutions that have received more ARC project funding are more likely to receive significant SRE shares on the back of their ERA outcomes, but isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that show that ARC project funding leads to higher quality research outcomes? And doesn’t that provide a decent mechanism for accounting around $900M of public money administered through the ARC last year (not to mention a large proportion of the nearly $1B research funding allocated by the NHMRC which also falls under the ERA/SRE mechnisms).

And this comes at a relatively modest cost to government as the ARC outlined in a 2014 submission to the Senate Economic References Committee Inquiry into Australia’s Innovation System

The financial cost of ERA to government, to January 2014, has been $48.1 million. This has funded the initial trial of ERA in 2009, the full rounds of ERA in 2010 and 2012, and the preparations so far for the upcoming ERA 2015 round.

While that doesn’t account for the compliance costs to the sector, it does seem a rather cost effective verification of the ARC’s allocations of public money.

SRE Threshold 2 vs ARC Project Grant (csv)