Money makes the lab go round

January 2017

While the funding program of its counterpart, the NHMRC, was subjected to a complete overhaul, the ARC continues with its approach of funding Australian research.

In 2017-18, the agency has $760 million to spend on projects across the breadth of non-medical research in Australia. This compares to over $800 million the NHMRC has at its disposal for supporting health and medical (H&M) researchers. And the H&M research sector can increasingly draw on funding from the Medical Research Future Fund.

Yet the ARC has to deal with a far broader range of research areas than the NHMRC, and therefore getting it right with funding allocations may be even more challenging.

2017-18 ARC funding outcomes

To date the ARC has awarded almost half of its yearly budget to projects across the two streams of its National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP): the ARC Discovery Program, and the ARC Linkage Program:

The ARC's National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP):
Australian Laureate Fellowships ARC Centres of Excellence
Discovery Projects Industrial Transformation Research Program
Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Linkage Projects applications assessed continuously
Discovery Indigenous Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities
Future Fellowships Linkage Learned Academies Special Projects
  Special Research Initiatives

It includes:

In 2017 the ARC also awarded $5.5 million to 12 Linkage Projects. However, attributing the awarded grants to any particular funding year has become increasingly difficult as Linkage Grant applications are now assessed on a continuous basis.

Inefficiency also an issue for non-medical research funding

Instead of a major reform, the ARC's chief executive officer Professor Sue Thomas told the ARDR it will continually review its policies and processes.

And according to the ARC's former chief executive Professor Aidan Byrne, who is now provost at the University of Queensland, in many ways the NHMRC's reform aligns its grant program more with what the ARC has already implemented to address similar issues - such as barriers for early career researchers.

What to look out for: A new Special Research Initiative for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remediation is currently open for proposals, closing June 2018.

In 2018, the ARC will also run an Expression of Interest followed by a full proposal period for the ARC Centres of Excellence scheme.

Professor Byrne also points out that for some of the new grant schemes of the NHMRC, it is yet to be seen how they will play out over time.

This includes the Ideas Grants scheme, which is meant to help especially early-to-mid career researchers.

According to Professor Tony Cunningham from the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, the applications will primarily be judged on the quality of the research proposal alone, rather than the past track-record of the researcher. "This will level the playing field and allow the next generation of great minds to compete better with senior researchers for research funding".

But the issues the NHMRC reform tries to address are plaguing researchers depending on competitive grants across the Australian research landscape, not just the H&M sector.

The NHMRC's structural review pointed out that the work required to prepare and evaluate the high numbers of H&M grant applications that then are not funded results in an unsustainable burden on applicants and peer reviewers.

The same surely holds true across ARC schemes such as Discovery Projects, which in 2017 (for projects commencing in 2018) had a success rate of 18.9%, meaning that over 81% of all proposal were rejected.

There is also the vexed funding imbalance across gender. With Discovery Projects the success rate chief investigators was relatively similar between females and males, 20.3% and 18.4%, respectively. But as is observed with NHMRC Project Grants, it is the far lower number of females applying that skews the funding towards males (only around 27% of chief investigators listed on Discovery Project applications were females.)

According to Professor Thomas, the ARC is actively addressing this issue, which it outlines each year in a Gender Equality Action Plan. And she highlights a number of measures such as targeted awards, extended eligibility periods and selection criteria that take into consideration career interruptions for parental and caring responsibilities, and provisions for parental maternity leave and part-time work.

However, whatever the ARC has put in place, there hasn't been much of a shift yet.

The success rate for 2018 Discovery Projects was slightly up from previous year's 17.8%, although total funding was significantly down from the $235 million for 2017 projects, and the $245 million for 2016 projects.

New South Wales, the most populous state, won the lion's share of the funding, with $77 million for 205 projects. It also was more successful on a per capita basis than other states, with 28 project per million of its residents, at a success rate of 18.7%.

But it is Tasmania that won the crown for being most efficient, with a success rate of 25.6%.

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