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Economics Legislation Committee
Australian Research Council

Australian Research Council

CHAIR: We will now reconvene and I welcome Professor Byrne from the Australian Research Council along with officers of the ARC. Before we go to questions, prior to the break Senator Heffernan wished to table some documents. I have had some discussions with the secretary and the documents—minus personal details—are tabled.

Senator BUSHBY: Good morning, and thank you for assisting us today. I have just one question. Have you made any changes to the format of your website? I was having a look at it and I was finding it harder to navigate than I had found it in the past, particularly in finding out about the recipients of grants. It looks more like it is tailored to people who are applying for grants rather than it is for people who might be interested in outcomes.

Senator CAMERON: They have estimate-proofed it.

Senator BUSHBY: Possibly.

Prof. Byrne : As yet we have not made substantial changes to that website, but we are in the process of looking at the whole website to make it easier. If your feeling is that we are not capturing that aspect of it so that people can find it easier, then we will certainly take that on board as part of the revamp that we are going to do.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you.

Senator MASON: Can I just flag an issue about absenteeism? The State of the service—Report 2011-12 identifies the ARC as one of the top five worst-performing agencies in the whole APS as far as unscheduled absences are concerned—although I suspect there are very specific reasons such as compensation or something around that. I might ask that on notice because it will just take up—

Prof. Byrne : I can give a quick—

Senator MASON: If it is really quick, sir, that will be fine. Okay, sure.

Prof. Byrne : We are a very, very small agency so that single absences look bad in terms of the fraction, but in terms of numbers they are actually very few.

Senator MASON: Is the ARC aware of criticism raised by Professor Tony Peacock, Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centres Association, that the ERA is too costly and is backward looking? How do you respond to that criticism? What do you say about that?

Prof. Byrne : It is backward looking in the sense that it looks at previous outputs. Is it too expensive? My argument is, no. It actually provides some information for us, but also it provides an enormous amount of valuable information for the planning and the sector at what I think is actually quite a modest cost. I think it is important for us too, because we allocate a large amount of government money to universities. ERA allows us to do a monitoring and a quality control of that investment. The amount that we spend on that, which is around a per cent or so of what we allocate, is actually a very effective way of doing that review process—if only for us. It is sufficient for us, and as I mentioned, ERA provides an enormous amount of useful data for the sector to help them plan. I think it is a very good investment.

Senator MASON: You said about one per cent. How much is that of the amount allocated? What are we talking about? What is the cost?

Prof. Byrne : Each year we allocate typically $800-odd million worth of government money. ERA costs us roughly $4 million a year to run? So, that is a half per cent.

Senator BUSHBY: A half per cent? Yes, it is isn't it?

Prof. Byrne : Which I think is a very efficient control mechanism that we have in the system.

Senator MASON: Can I just ask a question—I am jumping around here, so excuse me given the time constraints—about the ARC Linkage Projects grants. You would be aware of them, clearly.

Prof. Byrne : Yes.

Senator MASON: What was the ARC's rationale for introducing what I think you term the 'partner investigator' requirement in the Linkage Projects funding rules for funding commencing in 2013? I will just give my understanding, and if I am wrong please correct me. Is it not the case that the need for each partner organisation to have a partner investigator, if it is a new requirement, may provide disincentives to industry investment and for collaborative arrangements? I have heard this in the ether.

Prof. Byrne : Perhaps I could explain. The arrangement with the grants of that sort is that we resource money to an eligible organisation, usually a university, and partners are found which are partner organisations. So we have the distinction between eligible organisations and partner organisations. What I think you are referring to is the fact that we are requiring a particular investigator to be included in there.

Senator MASON: From that department.

Prof. Byrne : I think it is probably an important thing to ensure the success of any particular project that one is able to identify a particular person in an organisation that has some responsibility for it.

Senator MASON: But I think it is more than that, isn't it? Isn't it more than that? Don't they actually have to be involved? The words are 'partner organisation'. I think it is actually more than that

Prof. Byrne : I think it is in the sense that you want the partners to be engaged in the activity of the research, so in that sense it is more than just being the owner of it; it is actually somebody contributing to the project in its larger extent.

Senator MASON: Yes, but what is the degree to which they have to be involved?

Prof. Byrne : I think there is a continuum of activity that our partners get involved in in this sort of grant. Some people provide, perhaps, the oversight and guidance for that. Some people are much more hands-on and are dealing on a day-to-day basis with what is happening with researchers in universities. I do not think there is a single unique descriptor of what happens in those arrangements. It is a continuum.

Senator MASON: Okay, so what was the mischief that had occurred that necessitated this change in arrangements? What was the problem?

Prof. Byrne : I am not sure there was a problem. It is just making sure that we do our best to ensure that the money that we allocate gets spent in the most effective way, and I think making sure that there are people clearly identified who take responsibility for that is not a bad way to do that.

Senator MASON: I have just heard in the ether a concern that this may provide a disincentive for industry in certain cases. That is what I have heard. I am not suggesting it is necessarily correct.

Prof. Byrne : That has not come back to me directly in a strong sense.

Senator MASON: All right. Can I move on to the declining success rates and funding rates for ARC grants. I think we have touched on this before, and it is a common matter of public discourse in relation to the ARC. The Chief Scientist, who I think the committee is going to examine next, identified a number of research vulnerabilities in his Health of Australian science report in May of last year, including declining success rates and funding rates in ARC grant schemes. This has meant that an increasing number of high-quality science project proposals have gone unfunded, including, of course—you would have read this, Professor—for early-career researchers. This has become a top-of-mind issue in the sector. How does the ARC respond to these concerns—in particular the risk that talented individuals may turn away from pursuing a research career here in Australia?

Prof. Byrne : We are very sensitive to criticism like that, but perhaps I could just elaborate a little bit, and briefly.

Senator MASON: Sure.

Prof. Byrne : The success rates have been relatively static over the years, so they are not dramatically declining. The amount returned is a little bit more variable, so per grant the return rate is there. We are very sensitive to career opportunities for people. The data that we have indicate that if we look at our Discovery program—which is our core program, if you like—about 30 per cent of recipients of grants are first-time holders of ARC grants, and it is my view that 30 per cent is about the right number for new grant holders in any particular round. We have introduced a new program as part of that or associated with that, which is the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award program—the DECRA program. Again, that has been in operation for two years. In the first year we had such a response that that we overallocated money and took some money out of other places to support that.

Senator MASON: You over allocated?

Prof. Byrne : Last year, we allocated the target amount, which was 200, into that program. I think we are trying to do the best for early-career researchers.

Senator RHIANNON: I am interested in the Future Fellowships program. Do you look after that?

Prof. Byrne : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: I continue to hear good comments about it. Bringing researchers back from overseas is something that always pleases Australians. Does the program continue past 2013?

Prof. Byrne : This is the last year of allocation for Future Fellowships. They are four-year programs, but this is the last year of allocation that was programmed in at the beginning of the program five years ago.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering the success I understand it has had—that is certainly the perception—what is the future looking like? Do you think that those trends will continue, or do we need a similar program to continue?

Prof. Byrne : I think the Future Fellowships program, as you have just indicated, has actually been a very successful program. When I go around the country and talk to all of the institutions, it has really struck me how that has made a difference in all institutions, be it the very big ones or the very small ones. I think it has been a tremendously successful program for the ARC and that it has been very useful to do the things that you indicated.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you think that we will start to lose the benefit? Maybe, for a couple of years, it will continue to work. Do you think that the tide has turned?

Prof. Byrne : The tide has turned in what sense: that we do not need to look at opportunities for mid-career researchers? I think that it is always the case, that we have to do our best both to support researchers, as we can, to do good research and to provide opportunities to bring people back. We have other programs as well but, yes, it has been a particularly successful one.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that the other programs will fill the hole when this one ends?

Prof. Byrne : No, I do not think they will. That money will disappear out of our allocation. It was only programmed in for five years, and then we rolled it out over those four years. That was the intention of that program, but it has been very successful.

Senator RHIANNON: So you do not think we need to continue it in any way?

Prof. Byrne : I think it has been very successful. I would like to see it continue.

Senator RHIANNON: Would you like to see it continued?

Prof. Byrne : I would.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there any indication that it will?

Prof. Byrne : I do not have any clarity on that at the moment. I do not know the answer to that.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you made representations that it should continue?

Prof. Byrne : I have certainly talked to the minister about this.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to look at the changes to university research funding that occurred in the midyear budget. Have they affected programs and research projects? Were any projects cut or put on hold because of those—

Prof. Byrne : No they were not. Our programs were not cut as part of that process.

Senator RHIANNON: If they were not cut, were they just put on hold?

Prof. Byrne : No. It did affect—and I think I mentioned this last time I appeared at this meeting—the timing of some of our grant programs, and forced a compression of the timing which is quite difficult for institutions to manage, but that really has been the most significant effect of that.

Senator RHIANNON: So, it has affected some grant programs, but they were not cut. When you say compression—

Prof. Byrne : No, typically what we do is open a program for application for a particular period and give clear signals to the sector when we are opening particular programs for application. Because of the grants pause that was in place towards the end of last year we did not have the clarity there, which meant that we could not inform institutions about the opening and closing dates as early as we would have liked. In some cases we have had to shorten the application period. It was rather minor, but this time of year is a very busy time for the sector, and even a program that is open for a week less than in it was in previous years causes a little bit of anxiety and distress in institutions.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say that the application period was shortened—and you have said that that could cause stress with some of the institutions—does that mean that some possibly missed out because they just did not have the time?

Prof. Byrne : I do not think so. We are in a very busy period in terms of the grant application period; many of our programs are open at the moment. Discovery is open at the moment. The indication that we are seeing is that the application rate for all of these programs is very, very high.

Senator RHIANNON: Would it be fair to summarise that you are saying there may have been inconvenience for the institutions but there were not cuts to the work that they are doing?

Prof. Byrne : I think that is probably the right word to use: inconvenience.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

CHAIR: That concludes our discussion with the Australian Research Council. Thank you for your assistance this morning, Professor Byrne and Ms Harvey.