AAS dismayed at ARC funding decision

Wednesday, 06 February, 2002

The Australian Academy of Science has expressed dismay at the process used by the new coalition government to impose priority areas of research on the Australian Research Council.

While the Academy strongly supports a role for government in articulating broad priorities for a whole-of-government approach to research and development in Australia, the Academy believes that this exercise, focused on one agency, will have serious deleterious effects on Australian research.

The Academy is particularly concerned at the timing of the decision, the extent of ARC funding affected, and the lack of any apparent integration with the activities of other agencies or other government programs designed to assist innovation.

The Academy is concerned at the extent of the ARC funding affected no less than one third of the total funds in the 2003 funding round of the ARC. While the designated areas are undoubtedly of great import, there are many other worthy areas that will be left with inadequate support, including the social sciences and humanities. One obvious omission, of particular importance to Australia, is environmental sustainability.

The timing of the announcement could not have been worse and is not conducive to the development of strong competitive proposals. It comes at the very moment that Australian researchers across the nation are completing their grant applications to the ARC for submission in March 2002.

The concession to applicants of one additional week in which to comply with the new guidelines is completely unrealistic and suggests that the government is unaware of the long process by which strong research projects are developed, particularly those that involve linkages with industry and other end users.

The Academy cautions that basic research should not be overlooked. It is basic research that underpins thematic areas of national priority and enables Australia to maintain a competitive edge in innovation.

The government's laudable objective to focus Australia's research to fields of existing and emerging research strength in which Australia can achieve international leadership and which have the potential to deliver significant economic and social benefits to the Australian community will not be achieved if the quality of the ARC-funded research is compromised.

The Academy's Secretary (Science Policy), Professor Barber, said: "To advance all of the identified priorities will require basic research in often at first sight unlikely areas of science. The true value of basic research will not be fully realised until the well of creativity runs dry."

The government will now finalise priorities across the whole of the national research effort, including major commonwealth research agencies. The Academy urges the government to modify this particular directive to the ARC. Priority setting of research areas will only be in the national interest if it is well-coordinated and phased in over a much longer period of time to permit valuable linkages and team building to take place.

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