Australian Research Funding – Three key things

Change is happening, like it or not! The good thing is that you can get involved and have your say, and there are plenty of opportunities to prepare yourself for likely changes. You may or may not be aware of the reviews, consultations, and proposed changes happening across the Australian research funding landscape. To enlighten you, I will provide a brief overview of the current happenings.

There are three areas of current change happening; they include a review of NHMRC funding, development of an engagement and impact measurement framework by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and Department of Education and Training (DET), and a consultation on the Medical Research Future Fund strategy and priorities. 

What do these proposed changes mean for researchers?

Remembering that this is an opinion piece, I will share here what is known from the public documentation and give my thoughts on what this will mean for researchers.

ARC/DET

In 2015, the Minister for Education and Training commissioned a review on higher education appointing Dr Ian Watt AO to do a review (commonly known as the Watt review). The findings of this review and resulting recommendations fed into the National Innovation in Science Agenda (NISA), announced by the Prime Minister in December 2015, and all recommendations were subsequently accepted by the Government on 6th May 2016. This report is well worth the read if you work in the higher education sector.

On the back of this report and the NISA, and with specific reference to Australia’s low industry- research collaboration efforts, the ARC Linkage Projects Scheme has changed to become a continuous funding round in the hopes of encouraging faster collaboration and to take into account the anticipated benefits of the research findings.

Also stemming from the Watt Review and NISA, the ARC and DET has been given the task of developing a research engagement and impact measurement framework. This includes consultation with interested parties, universities and so on. The proposed changes are to the current Research Block Grant process and would shift the focus from peer-review publication to measures of engagement and impact. Funding categories 2, 3, and 4 of the current RBG scheme would hold greater value. Specifically and of importance to research,  this will look at the amount of research income a university receives from industry and other end users as a measure of engagement. This part of the existing assessment for the ERA will account for more in the distribution of funds from the government to university, to support the indirect costs of research. The current consultation and development of a framework will likely add other ways and metrics of the qualitative kind to the impact measures that will account for the distribution of funds as well.

This could lead to increased pressure on university researchers to work with partners, secure external funding and ensure research is of relevance to the end user. All aspects of knowledge translation.

Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF)

After being passed in both houses of parliament, the MRFF Act 2015 came into being. An Advisory Board, led by Professor Ian Frazer, was announced by the Federal Minister for Health in April 2016. The committee is tasked with developing the MRFF strategy and priorities. There is a current consultation paper and call for submissions due on the 6th June 2016. The paper asks specifically about the identification of current gaps and new approaches to achieve MRFF objectives. It asks what success might look like and how this might be measured. The building blocks set out in the discussion paper highlight research translation as a major focus of the funding from the MRFF with specific goals of enhancing collaboration and integrations, a translation pathway to maximise success, and an engaged workforce.

Given the focus and goals of the MRFF, it will be imperative that applicants for funding from this source will need to have a clear understanding of research translation, to ensure relevancy of research, partnership management and end-user involvement and the provision of clear pathways and planning for impact.

NHMRC

Perhaps the least transparent of all current reviews is that of the NHMRC review. From the little amount of information that has been put out, it is clear that the review stemmed from the Fellowship consultations last year. More should be known about the review and possible implications when they have information sessions in July 2016.

Strategies and changes stemming from the NISA, and the existence and sustainability of the MRFF may well come into question given we are due for a Federal Election on 2nd July.

What are your thoughts on any and all of the above? What would you like to see in the MRFF strategy?

If you want to get a head start and be prepared for the changes to how research is measured and the changes that are occurring to funding, then join me for a workshop. We have some scheduled or you can leave you name and location so we can come to you.