Editorial 30 August 2007

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

When You've Got A Bad Idea, Work It To Death And  Hang The Cost To The Nation

 

 
 

It was just on four years ago, late August 2003. The Department of Education, Science and Training chose Professor Chris Fell, then President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) to chair workshops to be held in Canberra and state capitals through the beginning of September which were designed to inform the then Minister for Education, Science & Training, Brendan Nelson, by  Reviewing Australia's Block Research Funding Schemes.

 

In reporting on the Canberra workshop one attendee observed: "Substantial concern was expressed at the manner in which research performance was currently measured, and at the way in which this altered the behaviour of university managers, often towards ends that were diametrically opposite to the aims of the government's programs."

 

Discussion then moved to the possibility of adopting "a version of the British Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).  No other proposal for salvaging Australia's block grant programs was given much attention at the Canberra workshop, except for a brief flirtation with the possibility of doing away with it altogether (and putting the funding entirely up for competitive bidding -- let's hear no more of that."

 

A year later ABC's Four Corners had Ticky Fullerton produce "The Degree Factory" and as part of her efforts Ms Fullerton interviewed Nobelist Peter Doherty:

Professor Doherty. [T]he flaw with the Dawkins model [for Australia's university sector] is really that itís not affordable, that we just donít have that much money. We could put a lot more money into research in this country and weíd still get very high quality produce for it, but itís a matter of what governments decide they can afford. We constantly in the research community of course try to persuade them to spend more but they have other competing priorities of course and itís a balancing act and thatís why we elect people as democratic representatives. I donít see personally why if youíve got a university in a rural area for instance or in an outer city area, thatís doing a very good research job with some particular focus [and] theyíre competing for funds nationally, why they shouldnít continue to do that. I think the problem comes with the way that research support funds outside the competitive system are allocated.

[T]he Australia Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council, distribute their resources on the basis of a very intense and very critically reviewed competitive process. It tries to be absolutely fair. Itís a peer review, so the members of the scientific community are reviewing each other and I think itís a very good process, and itís equivalent to the process in the United States used by [the] National Institutes of Health, or in Britain, used by [the] Medical Research Council or [the US] National Science Foundation and so forth.

Q. And by definition, most of that funding will go to centres of excellence.

A. By definitionÖ Thatís right. So you donít really need a Research Assessment Exercise in this country. All you have to do is to look at where the research grant money goes. Now the Americans havenít had a research assessment exercise, and the reason they havenít had that is they simply pay indirect costs on the grants.   
    As far as Iím concerned you donít allocate research resources to an institution. You allocate them to individuals. Research is about the activities of individual human beings and the groups that they build in competing for the best outcomes, okay. So you donít fund universities to do research; you fund people to do research and you then incidentally fund the institutions that support those people, and the way you do that is through an indirect cost rate mechanism.
    I donít think any of the research activity is funded enough in this society to call it a clever country. In fact the clever country thing is an example of hype quite frankly, and I think we can do without the hype and look at the realities of things.

Q. So hype aside, what is the funding situation with research in Australia, universities?

A. Itís modest, I think, to say the least. Itís not stellar. Part of the problem is the lack of resources from outside the federal funding sphere. If you were working in the United States you often have access to state funds. Youíll have access to local philanthropies, national philanthropies...

Q. If there was one thing that you could change about the way the system is set up at the moment regarding universities, what would that be?

A. I would like to see them go to an indirect cost rate mechanism for supporting research, which would mean putting more money into the competitive systems. I think the more government money goes into competitive systems, the better quite frankly. I think a competitive model works well for universities. I would like to see a lot of the regulation taken back. The universities are under funded and over-regulated. What we need is the universities to be, we need them to be free to innovate and to develop new programmes and so forth, in a sensible way. I mean some of whatís going on is not sensible.

Time marched on, the UK decided its Research Assessment Exercise needed an extreme make over but it remains perplexed as to what and how it should be accomplished.

 

By March 2006 Australia had Julie Bishop as Minister For Education, Science And Training and what had been the Expert Advisory Group, chosen to create a workable Research Quality Framework had morphed into the Research Quality Framework Development Advisory Group, led by Jim Peacock, Australian Chief Scientist, who are tying themselves into knots trying to create a sensible infrastructure for the RQF but with a monumental lack of success. Had Nobel Laureates in alchemy been available, there might have been a slight possibility of success.

 

And in May this year The President of the Australian Mathematical Society, Peter Hall, wrote in the society's Gazette:

How can we preserve diversity in scientific research, and at the same time enhance our strengths, in an environment where research funding is at best static? Perhaps the only feasible approach is to have periodic reviews of research in Australian universities, not just in the mathematical sciences but also in other fields, conducted largely by scientists and scholars based abroad. Those reviews should identify gaps in our capability that need to be filled, as well as areas where we are excellent. They should be authoritative, and have teeth; that is, our research funders and research managers must heed the reviewersí advice.


Other aspects of the issue of focusing on our research strengths should also give us cause to reconsider the directions we are taking. Over the last decade Australian universities have developed a significant redundancy culture, where staff with continuing appointments are dismissed or come under pressure to leave their jobs. The ardour of universities for enhancing their research strengths, by discarding continuing staff who might not augment the institutionsí RQF performance, is currently causing significant stress in some Australian universities.


In this respect the Australian RQF experience is likely to differ substantially from its counterpart for the UK RAE. Australian university managers are more enthusiastic about making academic staff redundant, or threatening to make them redundant, than are their counterparts in any other country of which Iím aware. Quite apart from the highly unproductive tensions that waves of redundancies introduce to the workplace, they create obstacles to hiring strong research staff from abroad.

In the September issue of Australasian Science ARC Australian Professorial Fellow Ross Crozier refers to the RQF as a "dinosaur", pointing to what should be obvious to any objective observer that it: "distracts from the real business of doing original science." He concludes, "For a replacement, it  is hard to better Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty's suggestion that we simply use success in peer-reviewed grant schemes as an automatic metric."

 

And then today what comes up on my screen... an email from one of Australia's most internationally respected researchers:

The RQF is supposed to look at each person individually, and  make judgements accordingly. For example, Australian universities  are busy preparing cases for all the people whom they are putting  forward to the RQF panels. However, it remains to be seen how much  personal attention these cases really get. The whole RQF business is  causing everyone a great deal of pain... What a big, horrible, badly  thought-out, time-consuming mess the RQF is.

So will Dr. Peacock's Research Quality Framework Development Advisory Group have the guts to tell Ms Bishop that all the RQF is accomplishing even at this stage in its gestation is burying Australian academic research under a pile of horse manure? And would she suggest to John Howard that the government ought to care?

 

And will Labor, were it to assume government, demonstrate that it is prepared to eschew the micromanagement of academe and its research that the Coalition is hell bent on perusing?

 

 

Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web