Economics Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 15 February 2012
Professor Margaret Sheil, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Research Council
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Professor Sheil, and all the best for your next move. As there are a number of universities receiving corporate funding and sponsorship for research, what sort of independence and quality control on the research is exercised on public universities that are engaged with privately funded research?
Prof. Sheil: I can speak about the controls and the provisions in funding agreements in relation to where there is co-sponsorship with ARC grants. I cannot, in my current capacity, speak about the controls exercised within individual universities. We have provisions within both our funding rules and our funding agreements in relation to ARC funding involving industry in relation to issues such as moral rights of publication, intellectual property, and management of conflict of interest. We monitor that and we occasionally, from time to time, receive reports from individuals or others asking us to investigate various aspects in relation to those agreements.
In addition, all the universities that receive ARC and NHMRC funding are required to comply with the code of responsible conduct for research, and within that code there are provisions in relation to moral rights, intellectual property, management of students and so on. We, from time to time, receive reports from universities in relation to people who have not complied with that code. We have mechanisms in place to receive those reports and refer them back to the university and ultimately, if people remain unsatisfied with the processes followed by the university, we have the Australian Research Integrity Committee, which can consider complaints of that nature.
Senator RHIANNON: You said that you are periodically asked to investigate. Do you investigate those complaints yourselves, or are they then moved over to the university?
Prof. Sheil: No, we refer them back to the university and ask them for the outcomes of their investigation, and as I said, if people remain unsatisfied they can then refer it to either ourselves or the NHMRC for consideration by the Australian Research Integrity Committee.
Senator RHIANNON: So when those investigations are undertaken, is that information collated? Is it on the website where there have been complaints so people can track it through?
Prof. Sheil: Quite a lot of that information would be received or managed in confidence, so we do have a register within the agency and a process for handling complaints of research misconduct. ARIC has only been in operation for a year. It has only considered one matter, and it has got one further matter under consideration. When we have sufficient numbers of matters considered by ARIC we will consider how we can make that information public in a way that does not identify individuals.
Senator RHIANNON: Would it be fair to say that you would consider a public database listing any conflict of interest or material benefit publicly-funded universities are involved in it?
Prof. Sheil: No, because we would not be in a position to maintain that information, receive that information, or monitor it.
Senator RHIANNON: So how do you think it could be made available publicly?
Prof. Sheil: Everything that we do is public, so all the grants that we award in collaboration with industry partners are public.
Senator RHIANNON: I mean where problems arise, so people can actually track what is going on. That is what I am just trying to understand. Is it more that you are saying you do not have the resources to be able to present this data, or you do not think it is necessary?
Prof. Sheil: It depends on the data, but there are a whole range of legal complexities around issues of misconduct, complaints, conflict of interest and so on. In general, our funding agreements and our processes rely on the universities managing these processes and informing us when there is an issue, and, as I said, we have got these additional processes with ARIC and so on. We would not be in a position to collate that information or publicise that information, or, indeed, even if we were in a position to do so, we would have to take very careful legal advice if that was the case.
Senator RHIANNON: How much funding has been allocated to climate change programs linked to an agricultural perspective?
Prof. Sheil: I could not provide that information. We would have to provide that information on notice, and we would need some definition about what you mean by 'an agricultural perspective'.
Senator RHIANNON: So there is nothing to share? Even just asking in the more general sense, has there been any priority within ARC in terms of funding research linked with climate change in general?
Prof. Sheil: No. Generally most ARC schemes operate on a bottom-up system, whereby we rely on the researchers to propose good research, and we have that reviewed, and the amount allocated to each project depends on the quality of the individual proposals. We report on the national research priorities. We have had a centre of excellence in climate change science, funded in 2010. We can report back on the number of projects that involve funding for climate change science—and I can give you that in total, I just cannot provide a breakdown from an agricultural perspective.
Senator RHIANNON: And within that would it be then possible to give a comparison of the research funding to the mining sector and to the renewable energy sector?
Prof. Sheil: Generally, most of our grants are categorised in relation to fields of research, not necessarily industry sectors. So we could do some of that, but it would depend on the specific—there would be caveats around how we would extract that data and provide that data.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I will put them on notice. Thank you, Mr Chair.