STEM sector peak body Science & Technology Australia says the late announcement of Australian Research Council (ARC) funding poses a “significant risk to the national interest”.
The ARC last year awarded $758 million in funding to a range of research projects, which included an analysis of the opportunity presented by artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technology.
Scientists working in Australia are still waiting to find out whether their grant applications have been successful, for projects which are due to start in January.
An analysis of ARC annual reports going back to 1999 by University of Melbourne postdoctoral research fellow Daniel Creedon found the latest previous announcement date was November 17, in 2004.
The later-than-usual announcement this year was “unacceptable” Science & Technology Australia said yesterday.
“Not only will we begin to lose researchers to more secure jobs offers from overseas, but there will also be delays in project start dates,” president of the body Professor Emma Johnston said.
“If we want to attract the best staff to keep Australian research ahead of the curve, we cannot treat them this way… This delay is having significant negative effects on people lives, and it’s grossly unfair to string them along without a clear reason for doing so,” Johnston added.
The body blamed what they called “the longest delay in history” on the government’s proposal to add a ‘national interest test’ to ARC funding applications.
In October, education minister Dan Tehan said researchers would need to articulate how their work would “advance the national interest”.
Tehan’s announcement was roundly criticised by scientists, universities and research bodies, given applicants must already pass a “national benefit” test. However, they welcomed Tehan’s pledge to make public any vetoes made by the minister against funding particular projects.
The Department of Education and Training referred inquiries about whether the ‘national interest test’ or the pledge to make public ministerial vetoes was leading to the later than usual funding announcement date to the ARC.
The ARC said funding for its 2019 Discovery Projects; Discovery Early Career Researcher Award; Discovery Indigenous; and Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme rounds would be announced in the fourth quarter of this year. It denied the ‘national interest test’ was causing a delay.
“The ARC is currently working with the Minister for Education to implement the national interest test, which will apply for all future rounds of ARC grants not yet open,” the council told Computerworld.
The ARC referred inquiries about whether making public ministerial vetoes was causing a delay back to the Department of Education and Training, which had not responded at the time of publication.
Shadow minister for innovation, industry, science and research Senator Kim Carr said the government had “done nothing but try and cover up their blatant acts of vandalism that are damaging Australia’s world class university research system”.
“Our best and brightest researchers are now – because of this Minister’s actions – heading into Christmas not sure if they are going to have a job in the new year,” Carr said in a statement last week.
Scientists have turned to social media this week to vent their frustration over the delay.
Imagine we have a federal election - the votes are in and counted. But the AEC withholds results to ensure the public has voted in the national interest. I'm sure our friends in Canberra would be super relaxed about their futures. This is an embarrassment #auspol #ARC #arcdelay— Dr Sean Coakley (@stcoakley) November 20, 2018
The #ARCDelay is having a significant impact on Australia’s ability to attract and retain the best and brightest, not to mention severely messing with people’s careers and lives.— Dr Simon Mutch (@T_Tauri) November 22, 2018
Uncertainty about my #DECRA application means I don't know if I will have parental leave next year (b/c change of institution), leaving my wife in uncertainty about when she can go back to work. #arcdelay— Bart Bolsterlee (@bartbolsterlee) November 21, 2018
“We must act on this delay immediately – we need to reward researchers for their hard work and dedication,” Johnston said.