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Economics Legislation Committee
28/05/2012
Estimates
INNOVATION, INDUSTRY, SCIENCE AND RESEARCH PORTFOLIO
Australian Research Council

Australian Research Council

CHAIR: I am going to start even though we do not have the minister with us yet because we are hard up against time. Do you have an opening statement, Ms Harvey?

Ms Harvey : Yes. I want to clarify two things. In question on notice A148 we said that the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions with regard to what I think you called 'the rock project' cost approximately $15,000. We have the actual figure to hand now, which is $12,893.68. The second item is that, just to clarify, at the Senate estimates hearing in February, Professor Margaret Sheil, the previous CEO, indicated that we would be able to provide information on funding allocated to the four different programs for the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. The annual report and the information they send to the ARC does not actually follow the programs. It lists it under the various expenditures they are required to complete when they apply for the grant. However, the university and the centre of emotions have agreed that we can table some of that information even though most of it is usually not published externally. So I have a copy of the annual report for you, and that financial information.

Senator BUSHBY: That saves one of my questions.

Senator MASON: I want to ask a question about the portfolio budget statements. In the budget statements at page 243, there is a table relating to the ARC’s linkage program expenses. It contains a significant drop in forward year three of the estimates, in 2015-16. Is that right?

Ms Deleva : Yes.

Senator MASON: As you can see, the expenditure between 2011-12 and 2014-15 is reasonably steady, hovering at just under $350 million a year. But in 2015-16, it drops to $283 million, or a drop of $60 million from the previous year. That is right, is it not? What is the explanation for that drop?

Ms Deleva : Bionic vision ceases in that year and goes down.

Senator MASON: Sorry?

Ms Deleva : The funding ends for one of the schemes, which was a new policy proposal, so that scheme comes to an end in that period.

Senator MASON: Which one is that?

Ms Deleva : That is a grant for bionic vision.

Senator MASON: Can you say that again, sorry?

Ms Deleva : Bionic vision.

Ms Harvey : We previously announced a scheme with regard to a special research initiative into bionic vision. I am having a mental blank as to what it was called. It was looking at how we capitalise on things for the future with regard to the advanced research that previous Australian researchers had done on bionics and how that could be used. So we had a scheme under which we funded two different grants for researching the application of bionics with regard to vision. They cease in those out years.

Senator MASON: Hence the drop of $60-odd million?

Ms Harvey : Yes. That is right.

Senator MASON: That is fine.

Ms Harvey : I will point out that Ms Deleva is our chief financial officer.

Senator MASON: All very good. I must say that numbers are not my strength. However, I will do my best. I want to talk briefly about the ERA results. Could you update the committee as to where we are at the moment for the 2012 ERA exercise? Where are we at the moment? Do you expect to release the results by the end of the year?

Ms Harvey : Yes, we do. We have actually closed submissions. All of the eligible universities have participated in it. The submissions closed just after Anzac Day and we are in the process of training our committees and going through a range of the different checks and balances that we do with regard to the data over that. We expect to release those results in about December this year. But it is my understanding that it will definitely be this year, the way we are going.

Senator MASON: I notice a recent article by Gavin Moodie. I should add, Minister, you would be aware of this, but for ERA, it might not be a front and centre issue. I get all these calls about ERA. It is very, very important to academics.

Senator Chris Evans: I think it drives them.

Senator MASON: Indeed, it does, of course, promotions.

Senator Chris Evans: And promotions and international reputations and all of those things. So it has become a very important measure. There is no question about that. I have a similar focus in the discussions I have.

Senator MASON: I suspect you have similar conversations, Minister. Ms Harvey, Gavin Moodie, who is, as you know, a tertiary education policy analyst at RMIT, has analysed the composition of the evaluation committees and noticed that there has been a significant change in the composition of the committees from the 2010 round. He notes, for example, that of 140 members, only 43 remain in 2012. Why do you think there has been such a big turnover for members? That is quite a big turnover. What do you attribute that to?

Ms Harvey : I do not think it is actually a big turnover. In actual fact, what we look at when we are looking at the composition of our committees is what underlying research expertise we need. The ERA 2010 submission actually gave us a really good feel for the sort of level that we needed and the different units of evaluation and experience that we needed. We also make sure that we have a good balance in bringing in new people to that experience to make sure that we are not accused of perhaps stacking the committee so you get the same results. Because there is actually a different reference period over it. We also have to take into account that because our committee members put a lot of time and effort into that evaluation for us, it is about whether they are actually able to commit that time. But I can tell you that I do not consider that a really large turnover.

Senator MASON: You do not? Ms Harvey, is Mr Moodie correct in saying that of 140 members, only 43 remain. That is less than one-third, if my mathematics is correct. Is that right?

Ms Harvey : Yes.

Senator MASON: In other words, two-thirds of the membership leaving is a considerable turnover?

Ms Harvey : No. In actual fact, when we did our trial in 2009, we did not keep all of those members into 2010. We actually looked at what we needed.

Senator MASON: Did you lose two-thirds?

Ms Harvey : I would have to check the actual numbers. But there definitely is a refresh of the people coming into that.

Senator MASON: For me, it just seems like a big refresh. However, I do not understand these issues as well as you, clearly. But it seems like a lot. Do you think the composition of the 2012 ERA committees better reflects the state of research expertise across Australia? Let me explain. Ms Harvey, Gavin Moodie notes that there are slightly fewer members from the G8 this time and significantly more from metropolitan universities established in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ms Harvey : When we look at taking people for our committees—it is an impost on their time and the duties that they do for their employer, which are the universities—we ask that the universities assist us in nominating who would be appropriate to be on it and who reflects the different criteria we have for it. We have a range of different criteria covering both their research expertise and their ability to work in committee situations and those types of things, because they are committee decisions. So a high proportion of them came from nominations from the universities along with statements of why they would be good for the committees. So there is a bit of a mix in how we do that.

Senator MASON: Would you, in a sense, police that? Sure, you take nominations from universities. I accept what you say. But do you, in a sense, seek positively to influence the make-up or composition of that by having members from the Group of Eight and membership from the innovative research universities on the one hand and the other university groups? Does that make sense?

Ms Harvey : Yes, it does.

Senator MASON: Do you deliberately police that?

Ms Harvey : No.

Senator MASON: You do not?

Ms Harvey : No. We deliberately look to make sure that we have the right mix of expertise in those committees. So obviously at the end we have a look at what the balance looks like and what the state representation looks like, but the underlying criteria is actually the research expertise that we need for those committees.

Senator MASON: Is the underlying reason the capacity to in fact analyse and judge the research contributions in particular areas? Is that right?

Ms Harvey : Research quality. It is the assessment of research quality. So, research leaders in their area and being seen to be research leaders in their areas, yes.

Senator MASON: What in general can you tell the committee about submissions from universities? Do you see any significant changes in volume or the types of inputs submitted?

Ms Harvey : We have not yet made those public but there are some increases, not as much as may have been recently reported in the press because the time that that was reported in the press, submissions were not finalised; universities were still going through those mixes. But we have seen some slight changes in that. We have allowed the reassignment rule to be broadened larger than the mathematics discipline. So last—

Senator MASON: You will have to explain that, certainly to me anyway.

Ms Harvey : In ERA 2010, the mathematicians approached us. As you know, the underlying principle for ERA is that it has to be an appropriate mechanism to assess per discipline. The mathematicians approached us to say that in actual fact a lot of their research outputs were reported or published in areas like physics or things like that just because they enable a whole range of other research. Because they were very keen and supportive as a discipline, and we had done a range of trialling on it to check that it was robust, they were allowed to say, ‘Whilst my output has been reported here, in actual fact a certain percentage of it is maths even though it has been reported under physics, for example.’ So what we did in 2012—

Senator MASON: Yes. I follow that.

Ms Harvey : We had a very robust consultation phase last year, where we asked other disciplines whether they felt that would be of value to them to accurately reflect the type of research that is done in Australia. So, for ERA 2012 we have allowed that reassignment rule to be used across all disciplines, and then we will assess how many actually used it in that case. There are a range of enabling disciplines, as you can imagine. So there have been some changes in how that looks, but not as dramatic as you would expect.

Senator MASON: So these are the lessons learned from the 2010 round?

Ms Harvey : Absolutely. Every time we do a round like we did in the trial, we do a consultation about what is appropriate for a discipline.

Senator MASON: I have no doubt when I get back to my office there will be emails about this. I am very scared about these emails from academics. I have further questions but I will put them on notice.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you for assisting us today and for your opening statement, with the additional information. I do not believe you tabled it.

Ms Harvey : I did, but I do not think it quite managed to get there. I did offer it earlier to the committee.

Senator BUSHBY: If we could have that tabled, that would be much appreciated.

CHAIR: We will grab a copy of it and circulate it.

Senator BUSHBY: I do not believe that I have ever referred to that project as 'the rock project'. I have called it the 'hearts and stones project'.

Ms Harvey : I am sorry about that.

Senator BUSHBY: I had a look through my notes. It managed to get into one of the questions on notice, but I could not find it. I refer to the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions annual report at page 70. Under the chapter entitled ‘Key performance indicators’ there are performance measures, with targets for 2011 and then outcomes for 2011. How are those targets set?

Ms Harvey : They are actually set in consultation with the centre and from the expertise of our centre’s team with regard to what we are trying to achieve with the centre’s round. With all of our centres, we are looking at adding to the stock of knowledge of Australia and how we support research students in this case. So there is a whole range of targets that are actually set and then they are discussed with the relevant centre. Some centres are slightly different. If you have a centre for nuclear physics, it might be slightly different to the history of emotions. We work through what is an appropriate set of key performance indicators for them. Then we actually set those targets for them and they report against that.

Senator BUSHBY: Under the section ‘International, national and regional links and networks’ on page 71, the target for the number of visits to overseas scholarly department centres and archives was set at six yet the outcome was 30. Why was there such a difference between the target and the outcome? Are these overseas visits paid for by the centre?

Ms Harvey : They are in some cases. But when we say 'paid for by the centre' we are not the only partner in that centre. So there is a range of collaborating organisations as part of that. So it may have been that in 2011 it was set at six because we thought that may be appropriate by the time they signed up all of their collaborating partners, which takes quite some time. We do not allow funds to be expended until that has happened. And it may be that there were just a number of opportunities around with regard to that discipline at the time. So their next one may be adjusted. We may then see if it is appropriate or not.

Senator BUSHBY: When you set the performance measures, the ARC has made available taxpayers funds for the project for the purposes that the project has been set up to do. When you set a number of six as a desirable outcome, presumably part of that is cost control and making sure that the money is not being abused for things like overseas trips as well. There would be an appropriate level that you would look at and you would say, ‘Well, in terms of achieving the outcomes, it’s appropriate that they might need to go overseas so many times.’ But 30 compared to six is a dramatic increase. It raises alarm bells in my mind. Is this the best use of taxpayers’ money if in fact it is contributing to these trips?

Ms Harvey : What I would say to you, Senator, is when we look at the number of opportunities, we would not be looking at the things that you are discussing because we are not the only source of funds to that centre. So they have to actually expend their money on the things that we have in their agreement. So it may be that whilst there were 30, the great majority of them would not have been paid for by what you call taxpayer funds. There is a whole range of money in the mix there with regard to what it is. As I said before, there may have been greater opportunities in that year than what had been expected when we first negotiated with the centre.

Senator BUSHBY: I will move on. I have the tabling report here, which gives a breakdown of the Centre of Emotions. That does not break it down in terms of how that money is allocated across the different projects?

Ms Harvey : No. As I said when I made my opening statement, Senator, they are required to report to us based on the categories in their grant. In particular, Hearts and Stones was a workshop, not a program. So we asked them particularly to break that down into that. We have then worked with them since the last estimates about what information—because a range of the information is not published externally—we could actually bring. If you would particularly like it broken down by program, we could ask them and table that to you out of session.

Senator BUSHBY: You could do that.

Ms Harvey : But, as I point out, it would be up to them whether they supply that by program at this stage.

Senator BUSHBY: I would appreciate it if you could ask them that. I suspect you will probably have the same uncertainty in terms of responding to this. Could you also seek a breakdown of each of their 30 overseas visits?

Ms Harvey : Yes. I will take that on notice.

Senator BUSHBY: Who undertook them and how much they cost, where they travelled to et cetera?

Ms Harvey : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to explore some of these issues in the context of the debate about the impact of research on teaching in our universities. The figures are quite dramatic, with research only staff numbers in universities increasing by about 78 per cent from 2000 to 2010. Then I saw that, in the same period, teaching and research and teaching only staff numbers increased by only 26 per cent. I want to explore the risk that your emphasis on research and the income or funding it brings skews universities’ own investment away from teaching students and towards building its own research profile.

Ms Harvey : The first thing I would say—certainly undergraduates are not my field; it would be an outcome in the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education—is my understanding is that the range of funding that universities receive comes from a wide variety of sources, including funding for undergraduate teaching. The ARC in particular is concerned with prospective granting processes for particular projects or for centres to add to the stock of knowledge in Australia, which is the definition of research. Our focus on excellence for research in Australia drives one block grant—the sustainable research block grant. So I think what you could say is that you cannot pin it down to any one thing because there is a variety of funding sources. There is a variety of different things that university administrations have to take into account when they are looking at how they split their budgets and what they are trying to do.

Senator RHIANNON: It sounds like this is going ahead in leaps and bounds. In terms of your brief, the teaching aspects of it are not immediately covered, like the potential for this imbalance that is starting to be explored and concerning some people in the sector? Is it part of your brief or is it just that you have to get on and do your work in terms of supporting the research—

Senator Chris Evans: Ms Harvey represents the Australian Research Council, so, as you would expect, there is a focus on research.

Senator RHIANNON: Totally. I was assuming that was the case. But considering the imbalance is so considerable, Minister, I want to see if there was any consideration given to this imbalance.

Senator Chris Evans: I guess I am saying to you that, if you want to ask about that in the portfolio responsibilities of our universities, that is perfectly appropriate. I am suggesting to you that the ARC are not the place to ask that in the sense that they will be totally focused on funding research.

Senator RHIANNON: I was assuming that. I just thought I would check. So thank you, Minister. How have the ERA and associated grant programs influenced the actual numbers of research-only and research and teaching staff numbers compared to the actual numbers of teaching and research teaching staff numbers in our universities?

Ms Harvey : The first thing I would say to you is that there are no granting programs associated with Excellence in Research for Australia. They are two separate things. We have our competitive granting processes in the ARC and then we also assess the excellence of the research conducted at universities. I just want to be clear that they are not associated granting programs. We look at, obviously, given that we are the Australian Research Council, the definition of research. Certainly you have teaching and research as a category as well. They are certainly able to apply and are counted in our various programs that we have. But just remember that there are two foci there.

Senator RHIANNON: I am not sure if this is one that you immediately have the information on or you need to take on notice. What is the amount of all research and associated funding granted to each university, and what is each university's HERD expenditure in the past 10 years? Can you take that on notice?

Ms Harvey : In fact, there are a range of different funding sources for universities, so I think that would be a question across the portfolio, not just for the ARC. In particular, the categorisation of HERD and its amount would actually be a question for our portfolio department.

Senator RHIANNON: This might be for the portfolio department but I thought it was with you. Is it reasonable to assume that the funding gap between the universities HERD and actual research funding received is cross-subsidised to a large extent from the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and student fee income?

Ms Harvey : That would be a question for the portfolio department.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Chair.

CHAIR: I thank the officers very much. We will now have the Office of the Chief Scientist.