Margaret Sheil says Australian Research Council must win trust back after “political interference”
The government must “clarify exactly what the Australian Research Council is for and who it is there for”, the chair of a sweeping review of the ARC has said.
Margaret Sheil (pictured) told the annual Universities Australia conference on 23 February that the research sector’s trust in the council would be a key focus of the review panel’s recommendations.
That trust has “largely been broken because of ministerial interference”, she said. This includes the vetoing of recommended grants since 2005, most recently in 2021 by Stuart Robert, acting education minister at the time.
Administrative issues are also prominent in the submission process, and Sheil said some of the feedback had already been passed on to the council.
Sheil revealed that some overseas experts had been reluctant to work with the ARC after several rounds of ministerial intervention in ARC decisions in recent years. “It was hard to get international reviewers to respond, particularly after periods of political interference, because they felt it [peer review] wasn’t being valued,” she said.
Reinstating a formal board for the ARC—after the previous one was abolished in 2006—would help address “a lack of continuity…and a lack of support for the ARC chief executive”, she said.
The review has identified several issues with the legislation underpinning the ARC, Sheil said. These include a lack of a clear brief that the ARC is there to support university and university partner research, despite that being how it operates in practice, and a lack of direction on the level of funding for basic research.
The ARC traditionally does not support medical research, but that is also missing from the legislation, she said.
Sheil confirmed the likelihood that future research quality assessment would be more streamlined than the now-suspended Excellence in Research for Australia and Engagement and Impact processes.
She said that these once-useful processes had been affected by “the law of diminishing returns”, acknowledging concerns from some that the newly created Indigenous research classification was now not going to be assessed.
The ARC’s future role might be to provide advice on “specific capabilities” in government priority research areas, alongside more automated metrics systems, Sheil said. It could also help in assessing research quality across the sector more broadly.
Sheil’s report to education minister Jason Clare is due at the end of March. It covers the legislation underpinning the council and is not advising on the overall level of funding available for the council to distribute.