In a weird week in politics, we’ve been treated to all kinds of pontificating about standards and principles, heated arguments relating to who disrespects women more, and widespread misuse of the word ‘misogyny’. But, at the same time as all this was taking place, we learned something far more worrying. The Australian government doesn’t care about research, or researchers.
In amongst all of the parliamentary posturing this week, a stealth bombshell was dropped: the Australian Research Council (who hand out federal funding for research in Australia) will be delaying their announcement of funding outcomes for Discovery Projects indefinitely, and will not be opening the next round of Linkage Projects until further notice. The only place I saw this reported was in The Australian, buried in the Higher Ed section and it was behind a paywall online. The quote from the CEO of the ARC described the timeframe as a “brief pause”. This delay is due to the federal government wanting to reassess the budget as part of their ambition to deliver a surplus. But the amount of cash the ARC gets to spend is a drop in a bucket and getting smaller every year, so it’s really a slap in the face to people who rely on this funding. I also saw a line that the government wanted to make sure that they were getting ‘value for money’ and ‘quality control’ for the projects. This also implies that the peer-review process for grants is somehow inadequate and the College of Experts who determine which projects get funded don’t know what they’re talking about.
October is the time of year when successful Discovery grants are announced, and it is this time of year that researchers develop a heightened sense of anxiety. Discovery project proposals close in March, so the wait is long enough without an impromptu extra delay. The ARC never has enough money to fund all the projects, and the rate of success is usually quite low. I wrote about this sad state of affairs last year. There is always a feeling of unease associated with Discovery season, because so much rides on so little funding. If you don’t get a grant, you may not be able to do that research you want to, or may not have enough money left to fund your research staff, or worse, not have a position left for you at your research institution.
Peoples’ salaries and livelihoods rely on ARC grant outcomes. For the government to decide not to tell us when we might know who will have a job next year and who won’t seems very flippant. But, more tellingly, their decision to do this demonstrates that they really don’t care about the state of research in Australia. The noise associated with the Gonski Review on education, and the recent announcement that the Office of the Chief Scientist wants to spend $4 million over five years on a national maths, science education and industry advisor seem quite hollow in light of this decision. What’s the point in all the support for students if there’s nothing for them when they’re ready to be researchers? Inspired kids who go through school and tertiary education studying science get spat out the other end with their newly-minted PhDs and the cold reality that there is hardly any funding, fewer jobs, and that the competitiveness relating to the preciousness of the scant resources is fierce. Pardon my cynicism, but there is really very little that is inspiring about such a poor research environment in Australia.
Most scientists (while the ARC does fund all aspects of research in Australia, I’m most familiar with the science aspect) don’t want a lot – they just want the ability to conduct the best research they can. If the government was really into being principled and wanting the best for the country, they would not delay the decision on outcomes, nor try to claw back a measly few million dollars. That money is the only thing keeping us as a ‘clever country’ and the government would be a fool to remove it from people who produce world-class research of the highest calibre.