Time was, when you wanted to do something, you just went and did it. Now, you need to get a grant first. There are grants for just about everything: for putting on plays and writing poems; for doing quilting; for being innovative; for travelling about and taking notes.
For academics, it is not enough to do research, or even to write books. In fact, it is probably not a good idea to write books at all, because no one is interested in publishing them. If you really want a CV that sings, you need a grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
The ARC and its equivalent body in the health and medical sciences, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) will between them give out roughly $1 billion dollars in grants this year. It is a legitimate question as to how well this money is used.
Earlier this year, Brendan Nelson, the former Minister for Education and Science, famously disallowed 26 grants recommended to him by the ARC. As far as I can discover, the projects were perfectly legitimate pieces of research. But the Minister took exception to them because they had titles that sounded silly, or the researchers were politically unacceptable to the government.
Ministers should clearly butt out of these kinds of decisions. But the question remains – who should decide grant applications, and who should evaluate those decisions? Does the Australian public get its money’s worth out of research money going to Universities?
The procedures for organizing the granting of grants in any field are fairly well-established. In the formal sense, Ministers have the final say, but for the most part, they act on the recommendation of Councils or Boards or Committees consisting of experts in the field.
So far so good. But of course, these experts are not disembodied beings. They are colleagues, bosses, friends or enemies of the applicants whose fate they hold in their hands. And very often, they have been grant recipients in the past, or hope to be in the future.
From one point of view, this is only right and proper. If you applied for a grant, you would not want it judged by people who had not had grants themselves, would you? It would imply that they were not up to much. But how do you manage the inevitable tendency for people to cycle the grants among themselves?
The Australia Council, which decides on grants for the arts, limits the number of years any one person can be supported, so at least the money is shared around among a bigger group of people than would otherwise be the case. The Australian Research Council does not place lifetime limits on grantees, still less on institutions. As one grant tends to beget another, it is not surprising that the bulk of the money goes to researchers in established, research-based universities.
The fruits of success are sweet. Not only can successful universities build up their expertise in particular areas; their research offices are sufficiently well-resourced to advise applicants on the tactical aspects of their application, such as how to ensure it gets to the most sympathetic assessors.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the so-called ‘sandstone’ universities winning the research race. Indeed many would argue that concentration is important if Australia is to compete successfully in the international research stakes. But given that 70 percent of applications in its main grants program are unsuccessful, it is clearly important that the ARC’s selection process should be completely above board, and that evaluation should be rigorous.
The Audit Office (ANAO) recently had a little peak inside the Australian Research Council. While the language of the report is typically cautious, the audit team was very critical of some of the happenings inside the ARC.
Auditors like decisions to be clearly documented. Unfortunately, the reasons for the ARC’s most crucial decisions – who gets up and, just as important, who does not – were not systematically recorded. Nor did the ARC do enough to ensure that (a) grant recipients actually did what they said they were going to do; and (b) whether the research led to worthwhile outcomes.
With such tight communities involved, the potential for conflict of interest is enormous. The Auditor-General found that the ARC’s processes for handling these conflicts needed attention. It also found that the ARC needed to do a better job of publicizing its grants programs.
The ANAO did not venture to comment on the quality of the research that is made possible by these processes. Given the degree of competition for these grants, it should be extraordinary. But competition is never the panacea that economists imagine. Over time, the less successful universities will find themselves shut out of research, and the more successful will inevitably grow more complacent and less innovative. Originality, the rarest flower of all, withers in the process.
Meanwhile, the ARC has promised to improve the way it manages its research grants. But the incentives to be tougher on itself are not strong. Perhaps we should ditch grant-giving committees and return to the days when scientists and scholars and artists survived on private patronage? But there is not enough money in Australia to go around, so the public sector must invariably foot the bill. And the prospect of government Ministers behaving as modern-day Medicis does not bear thinking about.