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ECONOMICS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
20/10/2010
INNOVATION, INDUSTRY, SCIENCE AND RESEARCH PORTFOLIO
Australian Research Council

CHAIR —Welcome, Professor Sheil. Do you have an opening statement?

Prof. Sheil —No, I do not have an opening statement.

CHAIR —The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in their latest newsletter referred to a report that was funded by the Australian Research Council. It was conducted in 2009 and reviewed the state of aged-care technology in Australia and Europe. I understand that you launched that report?

Prof. Sheil —Yes, I do not have a copy with me.

CHAIR —No, that is fine. I do not want to go into the detail. I am interested in how often you commission those kinds of reports.

Prof. Sheil —That report was funded under a program known as the Learned Academies Special Projects scheme, which has about half-a-million dollars a year to distribute. It is distributed on a competitive basis amongst the four academies and the joint group, which is the National Academies Forum. It is not so much that we commission the reports but rather that they apply to us for funding on a particular area. An expert committee determines whether that is worth funding. That has been an annual process up until recently. From this year we have moved to a triennial funding arrangement with the academies whereby they apply to us for funding for a range of projects within a common theme. That gives them the flexibility to commission and undertake studies in a more responsive way than the scheme has been able to address big issues previously.

CHAIR —That in fact is the kind of answer I was looking for because I have been speaking to a few people in the science and technology area who are a bit concerned about funding for multi-disciplinary work and across ranges of areas. It seems to me that aged-care technology is an example of that, where there are a lot of disciplines that might be involved in addressing that particular theme.

Prof. Sheil —It is true that one of the larger grants that was given under that triennial award in the last round was in fact for an interdisciplinary project across several of the academies. We can get you the precise details of the funding. The academies have obviously played a leadership role but we have encouraged them to collaborate and to bring together as many disciplines as they can in that kind of work.

CHAIR —So you are actively looking at that issue of interdisciplinary collaboration?

Prof. Sheil —We are looking at it in a whole range of areas, across both the national competitive grants program and through the Excellence in Research for Australia initiative as well.

CHAIR —Right. I think it was in this article, certainly in this magazine, there was a quote from the National Enabling Technologies Strategy which concerned me a little. It said:

Outcomes should be demand-driven and not a result of technology-push.

I appreciate that to some extent but there is also a need occasionally for some exploration of new technologies or new research.

Prof. Sheil —The National Enabling Technologies Strategy is the responsibility of the department so there would be officers here who could comment on that in detail. But in terms of the whole issue of user-pull and researcher-push, that is why we have a variety of funding schemes and so some of our schemes are very much bottom-up driven by discovery and by the researchers themselves. The discovery program is an example of that. In the linkage program and in the CRC program, which is administered by the department, it is very much user-pull and problem based. It is a different strategy and it is really important that you have both.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator MASON —Good morning, Minister and officers. Much of the discussion at the May estimates between senators and the ARC revolved around the implementation of the Excellence in Research for Australia program. Senators were told, Professor, I think, that the ARC was preparing to open for submissions from institutions. The other issue, I think, for senators on that day was about consultation around the rankings of various academic journals, which apparently is a matter of much dispute and consternation among academics. What has been the progress in the consultation since last estimates?

Prof. Sheil —Since last estimates we have rolled out ERA. We have received the submissions. We have formed the committees to do the evaluations. They have been provided with the information and they are actively working through those and will convene later this year to make ratings and evaluate the submissions from the universities. In terms of consultation, we are continuing to receive feedback on various issues. We are noting that feedback and we will take that into account before we have another round of ERA, if indeed that is the decision.

Senator MASON —What is the reporting timetable?

Prof. Sheil —We will be reporting the results of ERA early next year, in the first quarter.

Senator MASON —I remember—this is going back a few years now, I admit—that the ranking of academic journals was always an issue of much dispute. How is that being dealt with?

Prof. Sheil —There are over 20,000 journals on the list. There are probably 35 that are still contentious, where we have received more than five pieces of correspondence. It has been a massive exercise with an enormous amount of input and consultation from a range of expert learned academies, from peak bodies, from 700 individual reviewers and so on. You would understand that at some point you will get to a point where academics and different groups do not always agree—

Senator MASON —Oh, I agree with that! They don’t!

Prof. Sheil —but actually, when you look at the total of the numbers, the number that is in dispute—where, as I said, we are receiving repeated correspondence—is very small.

Senator MASON —It is very few at this stage.

Prof. Sheil —Yes.

Senator Carr —Can I just make some interpolations here. I think ERA is going very well. All the evidence that I am getting suggests to me that it is very broadly supported. I am genuinely surprised, given how hard it is to reach consensus on any major reform within the higher education system.

Senator MASON —Particularly on the quality of research, very hard; I agree with you.

Senator Carr —This is a very sensitive issue. We are actually saying to people, ‘We want you to participate in a method of assessment which will verify whether or not your claims about how good you are are actually able to be tested,’ or, as I say, verified. That is a very sensitive issue.

Senator MASON —And difficult.

Senator Carr —And given the extent of collaboration in the project I think there is very strong support for the claim I am making that this is very broadly supported within the scheme. One argument that we put is that we are reliant too heavily on the journal articles, and the CEO has outlined the issue around the journals themselves—the ratings of journals. But, in total, in terms of the research program for this year, it is important to remember that there were 333,119 research outputs, as they put it to me. There were assessments based on 4,912 books, 34,755 book chapters, 73,741 conference publications, 206,816 journal articles and 12,895 non-traditional means. So it is not just the journal articles; that is the first point. On top of that—

Senator MASON —No, but it is ranking journals by virtue of academic standing, which, as the professor knows, is an extremely difficult task.

Senator Carr —But the context is important here. There are over 50,000 research staff submitted and there are 149 expert panel members involved. It is, as you say, complex, but I have reason to believe that we should have some confidence in the arrangements. So, while it will invariably be said that we need to strengthen this or that aspect of the screening—

Senator MASON —I appreciate that.

Senator Carr —that is the context in which we are working, and we will move in response to later rounds of ERA to adjust to meet specific criticism where it is found to be warranted.

Senator MASON —Can I ask about that, Minister. Have any of the complaints thus far resulted in a readjustment of rankings?

Prof. Sheil —Perhaps I could answer that. We had one, I think, technical error where we established that there had been an error. We have noted the remainder but we have not adjusted after the final list was published because, if we had done that, you could imagine that we would have had just as many complaints about the adjustments as the changes.

Senator MASON —I appreciate that.

Prof. Sheil —Just for the record, I will give you the exact numbers. There are 20,712 journals on the list. There have been only 36 where there have been more than three complaints. There have been only three where there have been more than five complaints that we have noted. So, as I said, after the extensive consultation process, we really understand where the issues are. We understand the small number of journals that we will review for next time. We will do a big public consultation on the list. So we are reasonably confident that we know where the issues are.

Senator MASON —Professor, how does the ERA compare with any similar research quality frameworks in other OECD countries? Are there precedents?

Prof. Sheil —We have taken quite a different approach, in that, in a sense, we had the luxury of time, of seeing what some of the other jurisdictions have done, and have learnt from that and also learnt from the work in the lead-up to ERA. We have sort of jumped over the rest of the world in terms of our thinking.

Senator MASON —Okay. So you would say that, in a sense, it is a leading framework internationally?

Prof. Sheil —Yes. Ms Harvey gave a presentation at the international research management conference in South Africa earlier this year. There was standing room only at that. I will let Ms Harvey talk in more detail, but there have been requests from all around the world for members of her team to come and talk to them about ERA.

Senator MASON —The follow-up question is pretty obvious, I suppose. It is this: if our system is different—and I am not saying that that is a bad thing—does that make it more difficult to compare research quality with other OECD countries—you follow the question, don’t you—

Prof. Sheil —Yes.

Senator MASON —because the frameworks are different, even if leading?

Prof. Sheil —No, it does not, because what we are doing is using international benchmarks in all our metrics. So we are comparing, for example, the citation rates of papers compared to the rest of the world and compared to international citation rates. It would be almost impossible to have a like-for-like comparison in any case. Whatever we did, and even if we had followed slavishly one of the other exercises, we would not have been able to replicate that because of differences in the structure of our universities and our research structures. So, within ERA, everywhere that it is available there is an international reference point.

Senator MASON —Okay, there are benchmarks. So you are quite happy that you can compare the output of Australian academics with those in Britain, for example?

Prof. Sheil —Yes.

Senator MASON —You can do that?

Prof. Sheil —We can. Ms Harvey has just pointed out to me that we have international experts on our committees as well.

Senator MASON —I was going to ask that. Is there ongoing dialogue between, for example, Australia and Britain and the United States about measuring the quality of research?

Prof. Sheil —Ms Harvey can talk about some of her recent meetings in that respect.

Ms Harvey —I have just returned from a trip to the UK where we spoke to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. We talk to them all the time. We share our learnings and how we derive those benchmarks. They are looking to change to a metrics measure and they are seeking advice from us about that. We also visit other jurisdictions such as Singapore, Amsterdam and a whole range of different ones that are looking at it. We also visit New Zealand, which has a different basis. One of the things we try and do is how they get agreement about what is world standard, so you can do a comparison if you have different bases. We have the luxury of the fact that we have every research output produced within the reference period. We are then able to use bibliometrics to establish what is world standard on citations, so we can categorically stand behind that international benchmark.

Senator MASON —In the few years that I worked in a university, this was an issue even then, a decade ago—trying to compare the Yale law journal with the university of Queensland law journal and what weight is to be given to each one. This is not a criticism but I know how difficult it is. How you weight is very difficult because it has an effect on people’s careers, obviously. Good luck with it all, because it is going to be an ongoing and very difficult I think to objectify research. It is a very difficult project.

Senator Carr —Thank you for your support, Senator. We have put a fair bit of money into this. It is very important. It will provide advice not just to our deliberations in the portfolio; it has much broader whole-of-government implications. It has an opportunity to drive some of our international engagements to give people a better sense of where we fit internationally. It is a way of ensuring we have genuine national and international benchmarks for research quality. It should provide a real service to students to better inform them about where they go for their PhD. It will provide opportunities to reward and assess university performance because it will guide funding in aspects of the program.

Senator MASON —In the context of compacts.

Senator Carr —That is exactly the point. It is an important tool about the quality of our research program and where we fit internationally. That is why we are putting the resources into it. I am satisfied the work that is being undertaken is producing the results that we need to meet those policy objectives.

Senator BUSHBY —I refer you to a question on notice from the last round of estimates and your answer to that—EI145. There was some detail missing from that answer which is uncommon in answer to questions on notice. We have subsequently managed to piece together what happened in regard to time lines. The question went to the timeliness of the decision-making process for the assessment of applications for funding under various project rounds. Is it correct that all applications for Linkage projects round 2, for funding commencing on 1 July 2010, were received on or before 18 November 2009? Is it also correct that the ARC did not finish its assessment of the applications until more than six months later on 27 May 2010? After you provided your recommendations to the minister on 2 June 2010, another three weeks passed before he made an announcement about who had been successful—is that correct? And therefore for projects that were supposed to be in on 1 July of this year—and we are not talking about small projects; some of these are quite large—no-one knew who had been successful until one week before it was due to start—is that correct?

Prof. Sheil —Those dates are correct. The funding is available from that date, but in particular for Linkage projects there is a process whereby the applicants have to go through with their industry partner to form an agreement and sign the funding agreement. They have nine months, in fact, to commence the project from the time that the funding is announced.

Senator BUSHBY —But it still took six months. Those time lines were correct. During that process, is it the case that you received complaints about the length of time it was taking because some of the applicants saw that it was going to complicate their ability to undertake the projects?

Prof. Sheil —We received one complaint. Normally, the Linkage grants are announced in late May. There was not a major change to the time lines. That process of six months which involves an extensive process of peer review and assessment, checking and committee meetings and so on is the normal process.

Senator BUSHBY —Okay, but with respect—

Prof. Sheil —In this case, this was the first year where we had our new research management system in place and we had some additional checks to do, so it took us a little longer than normal to make the recommendations to the minister. But it was not extraordinarily different from the normal time line.

Senator BUSHBY —Those new processes that you referred to having been in place one year, you will have learnt from that and you will be able to get back at least to the few weeks earlier that you would normally do it?

Prof. Sheil —Yes, we would expect that we would make an announcement several weeks earlier.

Senator BUSHBY —In respect of the one complaint that you received, how did you deal with that?

Prof. Sheil —The Linkage Projects scheme coordinator would have spoken to the individual concerned and advised them when the time line for the announcement would be.

Senator BUSHBY —In respect of that complainant and other applicants, are you aware if any of them were forced to start up alternative arrangements while they waited, in order to try and get their projects started?

Prof. Sheil —As I indicated, often it takes them up to nine months to commence the project.

Senator BUSHBY —That is assuming they get funding.

Prof. Sheil —Yes, assuming they get funding.

Senator BUSHBY —I am more interested in whether people who had applied found that the time that it took before they actually found out whether they were successful or not meant that they went off and made other arrangements and did other things rather than continue the process with you.

Prof. Sheil —That often happens. It is known that this is a long process. When the applications are submitted, it is known that it will take more than six months to get an answer. So it happens, in that particular scheme, where there are industry and other end-users involved, that sometimes they start the project early with a different arrangement, or they make other arrangements as priorities within the company change. It was not an extraordinary year. It was a slightly longer time frame, but not an extraordinarily longer time frame.

Senator BUSHBY —Is there any scope to reduce the time that it takes to make these decisions? I know you say there is a nine-month start-up period, but a lot of these applicants are ready to go as soon as they can get the funding, and the delay actually delays their ability to, in some cases, commence projects that are ready to go. It causes them practical issues.

Prof. Sheil —The minister announced recently a new element to the Linkage Projects scheme which will be known as research training awards where we will be making allocations directly to institutions on the basis of their track record of interacting with industry. There will be 200 awards. And we will monitor very closely how that scheme develops. But the intention behind that scheme is to provide the funding and the certainty to the university partners in advance of the negotiations with the industry partners so that, once the industry partner’s commitment is secure and the student is in place, they can start straight away. So it is a different way of thinking. In our Linkage Projects scheme Consultation paper that was out last year, we flagged this as a possibility and there was some support for it. So we will be trialling it in targeted areas.

Senator BUSHBY —For those who can take advantage of that—and it does not sound like everybody can—no doubt that will be quite useful.

Prof. Sheil —The other thing I should point out is that the Linkage Projects scheme is being evaluated this year, so we will look at modifications, improvements and changes as a result of that formal evaluation.

Senator BUSHBY —One of the reasons why I was asking is because, in your answer to question on notice BI-147, you actually acknowledge that it is crucial to provide successful and unsuccessful applicants with advice about the fate of their applications well in advance of the start dates for grant funding. So, quite clearly, advising them one week before—even though they have nine months to get up and running—really does not seem to fit with your acknowledgement that it is crucial that they have advice of their success or otherwise well in advance of the start date. And I would have thought that working that acknowledgement into your processes is a reasonable thing to be doing in looking at ways you can improve that.

Prof. Sheil —Yes. We will obviously take that feedback on board.

Senator BUSHBY —Can you update us on the latest progress towards the implementation of the Australian Research Integrity Committee?

Prof. Sheil —Yes I can. We are still on track to have that committee operational in the first month of the new year. I recently met with my colleague the CEO of the NHMRC to consider applications to that committee, and we have a shortlist of candidates for that committee who we are just undertaking some final interviews and reference checks on. So we should be in a position to announce the membership—

Senator BUSHBY —How did you identify the candidates?

Prof. Sheil —We called for applications. We advertised and we have been through the usual process of checking referees and so on.

Senator BUSHBY —How is the committee being funded?

Prof. Sheil —It will be funded through the agency. It is a joint committee that will be separately constituted by each agency—if that makes sense. The ARC will consider matters where it is ARC funding or where it is a university that we fund, and the NHMRC will consider matters where it involves NHMRC funding or a medical research institute. The work that has been done to date has been done by officers from both agencies in collaboration, and the service of the committee will be done through that with us, again, with a sharing arrangement from our internal resources.

Senator BUSHBY —It will be a secretariat set up for the committee which will be funded jointly by different agencies?

Prof. Sheil —Yes. It will be more a sharing of resources rather than a joint funding of separate resources.

Senator BUSHBY —So you are using in-kind resources to support it? Is that what you are saying?

Prof. Sheil —Yes.

Senator BUSHBY —You will not actually be putting funding into a special pool?

Prof. Sheil —No.

Senator BUSHBY —You will just be using resources that you already have in your respective agencies and using those resources to provide the manpower?

Prof. Sheil —Yes.

Senator BUSHBY —So that will be taking resources away from other activities, but there is always an evolving—

Prof. Sheil —We have resources that deal with complaints around research misconduct anyway. Both agencies do, and it is those teams that will be working on this committee.

Senator BUSHBY —Is it true that a Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions is to be established by the ARC?

Prof. Sheil —Yes, that is correct.

Senator Carr —And a very good centre it is, too.

Senator BUSHBY —Is it established yet?

Senator Carr —I launched it.

Prof. Sheil —The minister has launched it.

Senator BUSHBY —So it is up and running?

Prof. Sheil —It has been announced. The funding will become available in the new year.

Senator BUSHBY —So funding has been announced for it, but it has not actually been established yet.

Senator Carr —From my memory, they topped the round, didn’t they?

Prof. Sheil —We do not comment on rankings, Minister.

Senator Carr —I expected to get a question on this; it did not surprise me. I must say that I think it is an extremely good project and it has been selected because it was the best of the round.

Senator BUSHBY —It was the best proposal. You said just now, ‘An extremely good centre it is, too’. But, if it is not actually up and running yet, we do not know how good it is.

Senator Carr —I have had the opportunity to look at the material they are undertaking. I read the briefs—because you realise, of course, that the way the process works is that these are actually made independently of government. Yes, I had the choice; I could have done what Brendan Nelson did and intervened on 10 separate occasions and told the ARC to take away their suggestions on a humanities issue. This is a centre that was selected by the expert process, and my recollection of the material is that this topped the round.

Senator BUSHBY —Thank you for your input, Minister. Be that as it may, going by reports the purpose of this centre is going to be to help Australians deal with their everyday problems. Is that correct?

Senator Carr —It deals with the fundamental issues that motivate people—what is it that drives people? It looks at it in historic context and looks at the issues. Particularly through Europe, it has industry collaboration from Opera Australia, from the ABC, from the Globe Theatre in London—

Senator BUSHBY —Did you say from Opera Australia?

Senator Carr —Yes, from Opera Australia. It has industry collaboration from very senior performing arts institutions in Scandinavia, from my recollection. I was quite impressed. In fact, I was more impressed when I listened to the people giving their presentation than I was by some of the material that was published outlining what it was, such as the media release. But the fundamental issue goes to the question of what motivates people in times of crisis or in periods of social change.

Senator BUSHBY —And Opera Australia and the performing arts are relevant to what motivates people in times of crisis—

Senator Carr —That is right. What impact does music have? What impact does poetry have? What impact does literature have in driving these social responses? For instance, it looks at the questions that relate to major epidemics.

Senator MASON —Altruism.

Senator Carr —It is quite open. There is the question of the baroque music. Our research program does not just deal with medical research; it covers the full gamut of human activity, and this is an important project. As I say, I chose not to intervene. My attitude stands in contrast to the previous government on research issues.

Senator BUSHBY —Minister, that is your call on that. I would have thought that if the purpose of the centre is to deal with people’s everyday problems or what drives people—to quote you—potentially, linkages with the government’s National Advisory Council on Mental Health or other organisations like that would have been ones that you would be quoting to me rather than Opera Australia and—

Senator Carr —All I am doing is quoting from the material that I had in front of me when preparing for the University of Western Australia launch. I was very impressed with the quality of the work. It deals with understanding everything from stock market crashes to the housing bubbles to revolutions. That is a legitimate field of academic or research interest.

Senator BUSHBY —I guess we will follow that one closely—

CHAIR —We have concluded the time allocated, but do you want to continue, Senator Bushby?

Senator BUSHBY —I was going to ask a question about skin cancer research, particularly as it applies to Tasmanian devils, if we have time for a quick answer.

CHAIR —Yes. It is very important.

Senator BUSHBY —I would just like an overview of the work in that area.

Prof. Sheil —Obviously I am not the expert in that area. Katherine Belov and her colleagues at the University of Sydney are. That is a very important and exciting project funded both by a Future Fellowship Discovery Project and a Linkage Project. It is an unbelievably important project and we are really proud of that one.

Senator BUSHBY —If you could take on notice to provide me with some more information about that and what it is doing, I would appreciate it.

Prof. Sheil —We would be happy to do that.

Senator WILLIAMS —Could you take on notice to give me the research as far as bushfires and what is going on in that area?

Prof. Sheil —Yes, we can give you a list of projects that we have funded in the area of bushfires.

Senator WILLIAMS —That would be wonderful, thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you to the Australian Research Council. Thank you for coming in today. I will now ask IP Australia to come to the table.

[11.33 am]