Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts
12/10/2012
Australia's biodiversity in a changing climate

BYRNE, Professor Aidan, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Research Council

Committee met at 10:56.

CHAIR ( Mr Zappia ): I declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts. I welcome those who are here today and those who may be listening to the broadcast of today's hearing on the parliament's website. The committee is inquiring into Australia's biodiversity in a changing climate. To date, 84 submissions have been received, and they are available on the committee's website. The committee has recently completed its program of interstate hearings and site inspections. It has conducted inquiry activities in each state and territory and is now conducting final hearings in Canberra.

Today the committee will be discussing national research funding with representatives of the Australian Research Council and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. The committee will then hear evidence from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority on the state of the reef and from representatives of the National Wildlife Corridors Plan Advisory Group on the status of the draft plan. Finally, the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities will give evidence on the federal government's approach to managing biodiversity in a changing climate and have an opportunity to respond to issues raised by witnesses throughout the inquiry. I remind members of the media who may be present, or listening on the web, of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee.

I welcome Professor Aidan Byrne, from the Australian Research Council, to the hearing. Although the committee does not require witnesses to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. We have not received a written submission to this inquiry from you. I therefore invite you to make a verbal submission to the committee, which will be followed by some questions.

Prof. Byrne : Thank you for the opportunity. The Australian Research Council, as I am sure you all know, is one of the major funding bodies in Australia for research. There are two funding councils—us and the National Health and Medical Research Council. The National Health and Medical Research Council is of course focused on health issues whereas the Australian Research Council funds research across all areas of activity. I have provided some numbers to the panel on the history of our grants over the last few years. The Australian Research Council manages three particular areas. One is our national competitive grants, about which I have given you details. We also run an evaluation process and provide policy advice to government on research.

The national competitive grants process is one where we allocate resources, largely to universities but not exclusively, on the basis of competitive processes. We value peer review processes very highly in our organisation. We involve a large number of people from around Australia in our selection processes. At the core of everything we do is excellence in those grant applications to deem them worthy of being funded. I will leave it there and take questions.

CHAIR: Thank you for those opening remarks and for the figures you have provided to the committee in respect of some of the grants that have been provided in recent years. I have not had the opportunity to have a close look at the figures myself, but I am doing so as we speak. Could you outline for the benefit of the committee and for listeners, who would not have access to these figures, whether the grants that have been provided to the Research Council in recent years have increased or decreased and perhaps give us a very quick summary of where some of those funds have been directed to?

Prof. Byrne : That would be useful. In the first table I have given you I think there is an incorrect number with regard to the number of grants awarded in 2012. The third table you have has the correct number, which is something like 1,705. I will make sure that that is corrected in your record. As I mentioned earlier, the Australian Research Council funds across all areas of research. It also has a variety of programs that it funds. A number of programs we have include funding basic research on a researcher led basis. The most significant of those are our discovery programs. We also fund a number of fellowships at various levels. The most prestigious of those are the Australian Laureate Fellowships. We also have the Future Fellowships scheme, which fund mid-career researchers. We also have early career researcher schemes. We also fund a series of programs that connect researchers, largely in universities but not exclusively, with industry.

The first table looks at biodiversity research. I should preface my remarks by saying it is often very difficult for us to determine exactly what a research activity is about when we get asked to review grants in a broad sense in a historical sense. It is very easy for us to do it when we are assessing the grants, because it is clear what the grant is about. But to provide summaries what we have used here is coding that we ask the researchers to provide. We code against fields of research and socioeconomic objectives. The data I have provided in this first table are cases where the researchers have identified that biodiversity and conservation is more than 50 per cent of what they see the project being about. There are other ways of doing that; one could look for keywords and so forth. But I think it is really important to be clear where the research is concentrated in a particular area. So the data I am providing are where the researchers have indicated that 50 per cent or more of the activity is in the particular area.

I have provided data on our grant rounds from 2008 to 2012. If we look at the bottom line, certainly in terms of biodiversity and conservation, up until 2011 there has been a significant increase in numbers—from seven in 2008 to 37 in 2011. That is quite a significant increase. The numbers for 2012 remain at about the same level as the 2011 numbers. As indicated in the table, this funding is across all the range of our programs—our fellowship program and our discovery program, which as I mentioned is our main researcher led program. But there are also programs within the linkage program which, as I said, is about linking researchers to industry, government, non-government and not-for-profit organisations. So it goes across a range of activities. In broad summary, for biodiversity and conservation the numbers are probably increasing. They have certainly been increasing over the last few years and there has been a stabilisation over the last year or so.

I will turn now to the third table, which is about climate change research. Again I would really like to emphasise that we have picked up where the applicants have indicated that more than 50 per cent of activity is in the climate change area. I emphasise that because a lot of the proposals we have may mention issues of climate change but that may not be captured in here. For instance, if somebody does a study in a societal sense or even in a physical sense, there may be applications around climate change but because most of the work is directed to another field it would not be captured here. So I think we do have to be clear what we are talking about with these numbers. Again, it is the numbers where the researchers themselves have indicated that more than 50 per cent occurs in the climate change area.

Again I think we see a similar set of data when we compare 2008 and 2012. The numbers have increased from 2008 to 2011. In 2008 the total number in climate change was 29 and in 2011 it was 79. The number for 2012 is about the same, 70. I think that sort of variation, from 70 to 79, represents the fluctuation that we have in the number of grants that succeed. I do not see that as a trend downwards. It is obviously less, but you could not use it as evidence that there is a trend downwards. What I do think is significant, however, is the comparison between the 2008 number and the 2011-12 number—a doubling of the number would be a significant amount. But there is enough variation in our process in terms of the grants that come in and the selection processes that we have in place, which pick grants across all discipline areas for excellence, not to be able to make a strong statement about whether the numbers have substantially changed from 2011 to 2012.

So that is a summary of the data. Behind that we have given some examples of the sorts of projects that we fund with that. We can fund some very specific ones in this area. For instance, for funding commencing in 2011 under the discovery program, there has been a total award in the order of $380,000 to a group at James Cook. The title of that research is 'Global climate change and the impact of temperature extremes on terrestrial biodiversity'. So that is well and truly into the space of this committee. A number of discovery grants and linkage grants are listed there for illustration.

I have also given some details of the three centres of excellence that are working in this area. Our centres of excellence are really our flagship programs. They involve many collaborating and partner organisations. They bring people together. They are funded at a significant scale—for example, $20 million over seven years, $11 million over seven years and $12 million over seven years. They are very effective at bringing researchers together focusing on particular problems. We have three centres of excellence in this area: the Centre of Excellence for Climate Change Systems Science, which is based at the University of New South Wales; the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, which is based at the University of Queensland; and the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which is based at James Cook University. They really do involve a large number of organisations and bringing them together and focusing on problems. They have been very, very effective.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. A couple of questions immediately come to mind. Firstly, in respect of the grants that you get and the projects that are listed in these tables, are they all totally funded through the ARC or are they in some cases projects where the research is jointly carried out with another institution and the total funding that might go into a particular area may well be higher than the funds that come directly from the ARC?

Prof. Byrne : The funding data that I have indicated there is the funding from the ARC. Where there are partner organisations, as with our linkage organisations, there are cash or in-kind contributions coming from those organisations too.

CHAIR: The committee has heard evidence that long-term baseline monitoring of the environment should be a priority, particularly in order to move towards a system of adaptive environmental management. This will become increasingly important as we go into the future. Does the ARC provide grants for long-term baseline monitoring, or are you simply provide funding for a project because it seems to be important but when it finishes that is the end of it? Are there programs where that will be an ongoing commitment?

Prof. Byrne : The centres of excellence is a program that we run for a seven-year duration. The centres of excellence are funded for a seven-year window and there is capacity for the centres to reapply and get refunded. That has actually happened in a number of cases with the centres of excellence that have been created in the past. Our major program, the discovery program, typically funds grants for a three-year duration. There is, however, nothing stopping researchers from reapplying after that time. There is nothing to prevent researchers from resubmitting applications to allow them to continue a project over a long duration. We do not prohibit researchers who have got a grant from getting another one in a related area. But we award these grants on a competitive basis. There is an assessment made of the research presented in the proposal and there is an assessment made of the track record of the researchers. It is a competitive process and the success rate, because of the resources we have got available, for those discovery programs is in the order of 20 per cent. So not every application that deserves funding is able to be funded.

CHAIR: On that basis I imagine you would get a whole series of applications for different projects that require research and, in turn, the ARC would apply to the government for funding and the government would then make an allocation. Is the allocation that is made then locked into projects which you have submitted to the federal government, or do you get a global amount of funds and allocate which projects get the funding?

Prof. Byrne : It is the latter. It is an envelope of funding for our particular projects. It is allocated on a project basis but, within that, we have the ability to award to particular grant applications.

Dr WASHER: We have heard evidence that the amount of funding for the ARC is inadequate and only 15 per cent of researchers get funding. I want you to comment on that. I have seen these figures but you will probably need to explain them to me. It seems that in 2012 you have $702 million but back in 2011 you had $954 million. It has dropped significantly in that period—I understand because times are tough. Can you make a comment on that? We subsidise industries like the car industry, which any sensible person would know is not going to make a profit in the next 30 or 40 years. I have got a bit of spleen about that. I would like you to tell me why you are underfunded to the point where only 15 per cent of the researchers get money.

Prof. Byrne : It depends on the program and what the success rate is. In our discovery program the success rate is in the order of 21 or 22 per cent, and that has been pretty stable over the last few years. The laureate program, which is very prestigious, has a 15 per cent success rate. And our linkage program is up at about 45 per cent. So the success rate varies from program to program.

Dr WASHER: Sure, but the overall amount of funding you are getting has dropped considerably.

Prof. Byrne : There is variation in the funding because of where particular programs get announced and the duration for which they are funded. I do not know off the top of my head—but I can find out—the reason why there has been a change between 2011 and 2012. Programs get announced for a particular duration—in some cases, but not all. We have an amount of money that is relatively constant but there are a number of programs that get announced for a fixed duration and, as that finishes, the money disappears out of the system. That, I am pretty sure, is the consequence of what has happened between 2011 and 2012. I do not know which particular scheme is the cause of that.

Dr WASHER: I was trying to get you more money!

Prof. Byrne : I am very grateful to you for trying to do that for me; I could always use some more money. The process is a very competitive one—

Dr WASHER: This is not a partisan question; it is bipartisan.

Prof. Byrne : I am pleased to hear that. As I said, the process we run is a competitive process. One of the things that the panels feel when they make this adjudication process is, firstly, that they have given money to good grants, but, secondly, that they are frustrated that there are a number of good researchers who they did not have enough money for. That is very much a feeling that comes out of every single panel that we run.

Ms HALL: I would like to ask, with the funding for environmental biodiversity projects, what percentage overall of your research funding goes to those areas?

Prof. Byrne : There is some detail in the tables. I should preface the number that I give you with the remark that if you drill down to any discipline area, because we fund across all areas, you are quickly reduced to small numbers. So the number that we specifically fund into biodiversity is of the order of a couple of per cent—so, it is quite a small number. The number for climate change is about four or five per cent, but if you ask me a similar question about another particular area, like geoscience, that number would not be vastly different because we fund across—

Ms HALL: That is exactly what I am trying to get at.

Prof. Byrne : That is right, because we fund across every single discipline area, including into the health and wellbeing space. So we actually fund 10 per cent into health and wellbeing, even though there is another funding council that funds exclusively into health.

Ms HALL: But I have noticed in something I was reading that you were looking at health and its relationship to the environment as well. And biodiversity and how that comes into—

Prof. Byrne : Indeed. So there could be some activity in the relationship to environment and to climate change that I have not captured in that percentage because the researchers would have determined that they feel that the majority of their research sits in health, which it probably does, even though it is going to have an impact on biodiversity or climate change, as the case may be.

Ms HALL: It is fairly hard to make that separation, isn't it?

Prof. Byrne : It is very hard to really determine what fraction of what activity is being spent in a very narrow discipline area. Yes, that is right.

Ms HALL: What determines ARC's priorities when they are looking at allocating to certain projects?

Prof. Byrne : There are a number of national priority areas that we broadly look at but we do not do an allocation based on those. We ask our researchers to report and see if they are working in those areas. The way the ARC looks at the whole suite of research activity is to divide activity up into different panels. We have five different panels that look at our grants.

The five different panels are physics, chemistry and earth sciences; mathematics, engineering and informatics; biology and biotechnology; social science and economics; and humanities and creative arts. Most of biodiversity would sit in the biology space. Climate change could sit in a number of different fields, including the social sciences, the physical sciences and also the mathematics and engineering.

Ms HALL: It could probably fit across the whole five, actually.

Prof. Byrne : Indeed, across the whole spectrum—perhaps less so, but not necessarily less so, in the humanities and creative arts. So we have to use other indicators to try and extract that and, as I have indicated, we ask our researchers to complete fields of research codes and socio-economic objective codes—which are Bureau of Statistics codes—which allow us to identify where the dominant activity in that research is.

But it is quite hard unless you look at every single grant to determine whether it is going to make a contribution in the area of biodiversity or climate change.

Ms HALL: How are your funds divided across those five areas?

Prof. Byrne : As I indicated, we largely look at how many applications are being asked for in each of those different areas. So the applicants have to nominate which panel they submit their work to, and we use that as the prime indicator of apportioning money—

Ms HALL: That is how you distribute funds.

Prof. Byrne : That is correct. But if it is a field like climate change or biodiversity that could go into any of those funds, so we do not make an allocation to biodiversity or climate change. We make it in broad terms according to the ask in those particular funds.

Ms HALL: How frequently?

Prof. Byrne : How frequently do we award the grants?

Ms HALL: Yes.

Prof. Byrne : The discovery program is once a year. And most of our programs are on an annual cycle.

Ms HALL: And they run over varying lengths of time, depending on the—

Prof. Byrne : Yes. They are varying lengths but our discovery programs—which, as I said, is the bulk of our things—is typically a three-year application process, although we are reviewing that. And the average duration for grants actually longer than three years, because people, for various reasons, spend the money over a longer time. The Future Fellowships Scheme is a four-year program. The ARC Centres of Excellence, of which there are fewer, is a seven-year program. So it is variable.

Ms HALL: Do you sometimes think that because the research projects are tailored to specific periods, that there are people who are good at applying for grants, and that a lot of time is spent applying for grants, there could be a more efficient and effective way of allocating grants? Or do you think this is the best way?

Prof. Byrne : The comment I made earlier is, I think, a quite telling one. When we get internationally renowned researchers in Australia to come onto our panel—our college—at the end of the process, overwhelmingly they say that they are happy with the process. That is, to me, a good indication that we have it about right.

There are lots of different ways of doing it, that some other countries use—sometimes shorter proposals, sometimes multi-stage proposals—that could be considered. But, as I said, the feedback that I get from our panels is that they think we actually do it okay. I think that is quite reassuring.

Ms HALL: I notice in the sheet that you handed out to us that in the funding for biodiversity projects—I am looking at the linkage projects—there are not international linkage projects.

Prof. Byrne : Do you mean with international partners?

Ms HALL: I am just going from the table here.

Prof. Byrne : Which one are you looking at?

CHAIR: The table on the front page.

Ms HALL: Biodiversity and conservation focused projects.

Prof. Byrne : I would need to check on that. I am not sure that the international linkage is still an active program.

Ms HALL: Could you just give us some feedback on that, because I think that this is an area where we would need to have international linkages, because it is not—

Prof. Byrne : That is right. Another way of looking at that, perhaps, is through our Centres of Excellence. I have given some examples—the three there. If you look at the international partners, there, you will see that all of them have international partners on the back end of the sheets. The Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science has a large number of international collaborations. The Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions has six Australian and six international organisations. The Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies has a collaboration with Stockholm University. So there is a vehicle for building international relations.

In our discovery program, even though it is not separately reported, we are able to have international researchers. And the majority of our grants do have international researchers on our discovery programs. They are not separately reported. I will try and get the data just to see if we can identify the fraction of international people. If you would find that useful I am happy to try and extract that data.

Ms HALL: That would be very useful.

Prof. Byrne : It is not in the tables, but I would be happy to try to get that data for you.

Ms HALL: I have one final question. I know you mentioned earlier that there was some collaborative research. Do you favour programs that are collaborative? Or do you look at programs that are just based on one specific—

Prof. Byrne : Research project?

Ms HALL: Well, yes, but a collaborative project can be one research project. I was going to say one that is more insular—but I do not think that is the right word.

Prof. Byrne : Isolated?

Ms HALL: Isolated, yes.

Prof. Byrne : Indeed. I think most of our research projects, particularly in this area, are recognising that they have to have diffuse boundaries and bring in people from different aspects. I think very few of them in biodiversity, for instance—and indeed climate change—are actually tight, isolated projects that are not mindful of the broader context within which they are working. I think that is probably a signature of most of the applications into this area.

Ms MARINO: Perhaps I could just go a little bit further. I am a Western Australian, and when we were in WA we heard from the WA Museum about the fact that they had funding that they were able to use for a specific project in a coastal sense, given the interface between federal and state matters. They had funding for the discrete project, but they did not have funding to synthesise that with the state and federal research that was there, which could have been collectively used for a far greater purpose. So there was a concern about the isolation of both sets of data and what happened to it beyond that. So, in allocating grants, is the issue that the organisations that apply for the grants do not request the funding to do that type of integration? Or is the issue the simple fact that there is not enough funding and they can do only the core projects, be it state or federal? I would be very interested in that, because there is a wealth of information out there.

Prof. Byrne : Right. I cannot speak for that particular example, because I am not aware of the details, but I do not think there is anything that would preclude a grant that mentions the synthesis and interpretation of data from various sources. We would not exclude that on any grounds. What is somewhat of a constraint is the duration. If they are applying for a three-year grant and they feel that the scope of work they are describing could not reasonably be achieved within a three-year grant, they may not have put that as part of the proposal. I do not know this specific proposal and I do not know the case, but there is no in-principle reason they could not have applied for a project that had as an integral part of it the integration of data. That is not an unreasonable request for a search activity.

Ms MARINO: If you are looking at the tick boxes, if you like, in applying for a grant, is that one that is part of the process that can be used?

Prof. Byrne : If you are asking if you can use our resources to do a project like that, then I think the answer would be yes.

Ms MARINO: So if they happen to apply for funding for that specific purpose—to synthesise the data between the two—that would tick the boxes for funding?

Prof. Byrne : That would seem like legitimate research activity.

CHAIR: Can you comment on whether the fact that many projects go unfunded is causing a loss of researchers to Australia?

Prof. Byrne : I would find that hard to answer, in some ways. As I said, we only fund, almost at best, 20 per cent of that. I think the consequence of that has to be that researchers look for funding elsewhere. Of course, some of them can be supported within a university system, but not all of them can, and the research community is a very mobile community. Researchers do go overseas and we recruit researchers from overseas, so there is a lot of interchange between researchers. But the consequence of a 20 per cent success rate, I think, would be that there will be movement of researchers. I cannot quantify that, unfortunately.

CHAIR: Do any of the applications that come to the council come from other institutions, like universities?

Prof. Byrne : We have a set of eligible organisations, which includes all of the universities and, depending on the program, a number of other institutions. We get applications from most of them.

CHAIR: Is there anything specific, with respect to research into both biodiversity and climate change—which are the areas that this committee is this looking at—that you would be asking the committee to comment on in our final report? Are there any areas that perhaps have not been covered in the questions today that you believe are worthy of the committee's interest.

Prof. Byrne : I do not know to what extent the committee has looked at the diversity of applications across the different funding areas—maybe it was the question that was raised earlier. Funding in these two areas would sit across a number of our panels. I wonder if the committee is going to think about the comment I made before about the broader impact of these particular areas in research. Biodiversity might just be in biology but the impacts are broader; climate change could be in physical sciences but the impacts are broader. I think we do have mechanisms within our funding allocation to think about those aspects. But the breadth of influence of these topics is probably something that the committee probably should be focusing on.

CHAIR: I would assume that once funding is allocated for a particular project, once the project has been completed, it is made available to the broad public.

Prof. Byrne : Yes, indeed. We are in the process of changing our open-access policy, for instance, to insist that work that is published is put into the public domain 12 months after it has been published, which is aligning our policy with the National Health and Medical Research Council's policy on open access. I have just undertaken a process of consultation with universities and other stakeholders about this and have received a very overwhelming positive response from institutions supporting a change in my policy on open access for publication. We have it as a strong suggestion but we will be building that as a requirement into our future funding rules.

CHAIR: Professor Byrne, thank you for your attendance here today. I note you were asked to provide, if you could, some additional comments on that graph on page 1. If you do so, please forward them to the secretary. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have an opportunity to request corrections to errors of transcription or attribution, if you feel they are necessary. Once again, thank you. I ask that one of the members move that the document titled ARC funding for biodiversity and climate change research, presented by the Australian Research Council be accepted as evidence and included in the committee's record as an exhibit.

Ms HALL: I move the motion.

CHAIR: There being no objection, it is so ordered. Once again, Professor Byrne, thank you very much.