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Estimates: Education and Employment Legislation Committee (Australian Research Council)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 26 Feb 2014

Education and Employment Legislation Committee

26/02/2014

EDUCATION PORTFOLIO - Australian Research Council

Ms Paul : A question was asked referring to page 16 of the portfolio additional estimates statement. While the committee was dealing with cross-portfolio issues, I was advised—and I gave in evidence—that we thought it was the Remote Jobs and Communities Program. It is not. It is actually a reduction in revenue in the HELP scheme. We have already taken it on notice to unpack all of this. We will just add it in there. My apologies.

Senator RHIANNON: I imagine you are acquainted with the term 'churning' with respect to research. Can you just give us a definition of what you understand it to mean?

Prof. Byrne : Churning, in a way, has nothing to do with research in this country. If I interpret your question correctly, it is about the movement of staff between institutions, so it is about staffing of universities. Is that what your question is about? Do you want me to talk about changes in staff in universities?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. Do you see it as a problem? I think you may have just said that you did not see it as a problem.

Prof. Byrne : No, I did not say I did not see it as a problem. It is not a principal issue around research in Australia; it is an issue more broadly about the research workforce in Australia. It is about the movement of staff between institutions. In many ways it is a very positive attribute of our research system that we have staff moving between different institutions, both within Australia and overseas—there is net benefit to the nation from staff going overseas and coming back—and going out of the university sector and coming back. This is something that has a positive effect on our research sector. That is about the movement of staff. You could call that churn.

Senator RHIANNON: I notice some people even call it 'poaching'. I was interested because there have been recent media reports of concerns that universities are poaching research centres to improve their ERA performance—particularly just before the ERA census date lapses. Can you outline the range of practices that have been undertaken by universities to improve their ERA performance and are there any concerns from the perspective of the department about the fact that many of the movements are occurring just before this cut-off date?

Prof. Byrne : That is a complicated question. It comes back, I think, to what the intent of the research evaluation exercise is. One of the things about the research evaluation exercise ERA has done is that it has provided a focus for universities on the quality of the research that they do. I think overall this has been a tremendously beneficial asset to the sector. Indeed when I talk to vice-chancellors, they echo that support. So, in the broad, the Excellence in Research for Australia activity is providing an enhancement of Australia's research system. The exercise provides an evaluation of all of the research outputs from the sector. It looks at those outputs over a six-year window and provides an independent evaluation, normalisation and external benchmarking of those. That information is there to help institutions develop their strategic plans about what they want to pursue and about what areas they want to support. As part of that, if an institution decides, on the one hand, to strengthen a particular research area or, on the other hand, to let go of a particular research area, that is probably a positive and beneficial aspect of the research evaluation exercise. If, as part of that exercise, an institution chooses to specifically recruit in a particular area, that again is, in general, a positive aspect of the research evaluation exercise—because it provides the institutions with an independent assessment of research quality. I do not see it as a particularly negative outcome of the research evaluation exercise and I also do not see the movement of staff as a terribly negative outcome either. I think that has been—

Senator RHIANNON: I do not think anybody is suggesting—it is life, people move. But is there some aspect of a problem, a degree of a negative aspect?

Prof. Byrne : If I could create a problem for you, in a sense. The problem for you is that we run the evaluation exercise at specific times. In order to do an evaluation exercise, we have to be clear what material counts within a particular exercise because it is a moving time frame. Therefore, as part of that exercise, we do have to announce where the time window is and specific dates around that. We do have a process for identifying which staff gets included inside that exercise. Then, of course, institutions are going to have that in mind when they recruit staff from other institutions. The issue here is that because the exercise is by its very nature bunchy, it means that there is a particular point in time, the census date, that is of critical importance to institutions in terms of making sure that the staff they have within their institutions at that particular time, is the staff that they want to have in their institution for the purposes of that evaluation exercise.

Senator RHIANNON: What I had referred to was this Benefits Realisation Review of Excellence in Research for Australia, the report to the ARC.

Prof. Byrne : Sorry, I beg your pardon Senator, but that does not talk that churn in that exercise, I do not think.

Senator RHIANNON: No, it does not have churn. But with regard to the movement in the management, I noticed that it presents issues around discontinuing areas of research activity and human resource decision making, and how all that is managed and the significant positive impacts. However, the review does not address whether perceived improvements in the focusing of research effort or resource allocation due to ERA has sector risks. So we get the positive side of it, but I did not see that there was an examination of the risks. It is the same with the churning one. Naturally people move, as I said it is life. But sometimes there can be push factors and there is a need to examine the positives and negatives here. And when I moved onto this one, I felt that it seemed to be weighted. It did not give the full spread of how this is playing out.

Prof. Byrne : If I could make a comment around that. It was an independent review done outside our organisation looking at the benefits. Other people have considered the exercise from different dimensions, but that particular review was an independent one, and we were wanting to hear both positive and negative comments around our evaluation exercise. We are always striving to improve our evaluation exercise.

Senator RHIANNON: You felt that you got positives and negatives from that?

Prof. Byrne : Again, I think the broad response to our evaluation exercise within the sector is actually positive. That is being reflected in that independent review. The broad consensus of the exercise is that it is useful for institutions.

Senator RHIANNON: For the early career researchers, has any review been undertaken into what the implications of the ERA are upon staff or upon the opportunities for those early career researchers? If any work has been done in this area, could you share a link or the report with us please?

Prof. Byrne : I do not think we have done a specific review of the consequences of the ERA exercise on early career researchers. We have not commissioned a review into that particular area. Of course, the early career researchers are of high importance to us. It is an area that we monitor very closely, particularly with regard to our grants allocation process. I can give you a number with regard to early career researchers with regard to new entrants within our competitive grants system, which is distinct and different from the evaluation system but actually probably more important. The number that we have for new entrants into our competitive grant system is around 28 per cent—this is within our core Discovery program, plus the DECRAs. That 28 per cent is the new entries, people that have not received a research grant from us previously. My view is that the number is probably where it needs to be: any higher and the conditions for people that have had a grant previously with us, people that are established researchers would get harder and harder; any lower than that and I think it would disadvantage new entries into the system, early-career researchers in particular.

So, in a way, it is the grants allocation process that has a much more significant effect on early-career researchers than the evaluation process. The evaluation process is looks at research in a six-year window, so by its very nature it is a historical exercise. If you are an early-career researcher, you may not have a high profile in that evaluation exercise until you are well into your research career.

Senator RHIANNON: You just mentioned that you have been monitoring this area of research. Are you able to provide the committee with the results of that monitoring you are undertaking?

Prof. Byrne : Certainly. We are very happy to provide to this meeting a graph that I have been showing all around the country about the success rates of new entries into the system. I am very happy to do that, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

...

Senator RHIANNON: Do you agree that university staff should know how their research outputs are defined or assigned in relation to ERA? I was interested in knowing if the Australian Research Council included in its 2015 submission guidelines to ensure staff are provided with this information.

Prof. Byrne : I will make a statement. I will give you my personal view first. My personal view is that university staff should be aware of how their work is coded for the ERA exercise. This is the business of the universities, and we do not have it as a requirement for the submission process that they consult with each and every staff member as part of that process.

Senator RHIANNON: Why don't you have it as a requirement?

Prof. Byrne : Because it actually would provide a complication to all of the universities and would really make the exercise quite burdensome.

Ms Harvey : If it is a journal article that is submitted, we have the journal list which we publish. It talks about which field of research a journal article published in that journal could be assigned to. In the last ERA—2012—we had less than 15 per cent of research outputs reassigned, but it is something individual academics would be discussing with their research office. It is the business of that relationship.

Prof. Byrne : So we are mindful that we are asking a lot of information from the sector as part of this exercise. We are trying to minimise the constraints we put on the universities themselves. It is a significant data collection exercise. Were we to mandate a consultation process, I think that would really be quite a challenge for institutions.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you thought of approaching it in another way: just urging universities to do it and working on changing the culture? In this era where everything is about data collection, it surely would not be that hard.

Prof. Byrne : Which is why I prefaced my answer to your question by giving you my view, which is that it is a good and useful thing to make sure you capture individual contributions—and for various reasons, I have to say.

Senator RHIANNON: But I asked if you have considered making the suggestion—making it a recommendation but not mandatory to try to work on changing the culture?

Prof. Byrne : Certainly when I have conversations with the sector and this topic comes up I would make a statement, like I have just made to you, about how I see that as a valuable component of what universities should be doing. If I can do that and if universities do that without us having to mandate it, allowing them to build that into their systems, I think that is a good thing. As I go around the country and talk to universities, I am pushing that line.

Senator RHIANNON: But there is no requirement? You are not doing anything to actually require it?

Prof. Byrne : Again, I see it as a good thing if we can get them to do it without us trying to lay a particular mandate on a data collection exercise that is already of quite a significant scale.

Senator RHIANNON: Since we last met in November, has the minister issued any directive or exercised any veto over recommendations that impact on funding through ARC process?

Prof. Byrne : No, the minister has not.

Senator RHIANNON: There have been no directives, no—

Ms Harvey : I can confirm that there have been no directives from the minister.

Senator RHIANNON: No directives, no discussions, no communications?

Ms Harvey : About? There have been a range of discussions.

Senator RHIANNON: About the point that I just raised.

Ms Harvey : About funding?

Senator RHIANNON: Funding through the ARC process. I am talking about communications in the widest sense of the word. I just want to capture whether there has been anything.

Prof. Byrne : We communicate with the minister and—

Senator KIM CARR: Is it still the case, Professor, that any ministerial directive has to be published?

Ms Harvey : Yes.

CHAIR: Professor Byrne, do you have an answer to Senator Rhiannon's question or do you want it asked again?

Prof. Byrne : I think it would be useful to be clear about what we are being asked. If the question is whether I have communication with the minister and the minister's office, the answer is yes.

Senator RHIANNON: I think my question was quite clear. It was not that. You are good with words. I noticed that we went from 'cuts' to 'redirection'.

Prof. Byrne : Those are the words in MYEFO.

Senator RHIANNON: In this case, what we were talking about was whether the minister had issued any directives or exercised any vetoes over recommendations that impact on funding through the ARC process.

Prof. Byrne : That is a no.

Senator RHIANNON: No communication on that specific issue?

Prof. Byrne : The minister has not vetoed any grant allocations.

Senator McKENZIE: A couple of times we have mentioned the Future Fellowships program. Can you briefly outline to the committee the benefits of that program?

Prof. Byrne : It is a program targeting mid-career researchers. We were lucky to have the program created six years ago. We have had five rounds and we have awarded 200 fellowships per year, so slightly over 1,000 fellows have received grants. That program was continued for an additional round in last year's budget for an additional 150 fellowships. That round is under consideration now.

I am of the view—and this is supported by a review we have run of the program—that this has been a very successful program in that it gives support to researchers at a very critical time in their research careers. It gives them funding for four years to pursue their research topics. They are at a point where they are, in many ways, at their most creative. They are managing to interact with all sorts of paths outside the university sector, which is a very positive attribute. They have one of the highest rates of international participation of any scheme we run—around 90 per cent to 95 per cent have international connections. So they are being actively networked into the research agenda around the world. They bring that back into Australia to the support of the Australian research community in the broad. They are also making connections with industry. That is also increasingly important. It has been a very positive scheme. It is also enabling the fellows to transition from a set of rather precarious, short-term casual postdoctoral positions to ongoing, continuing academic careers. The success rate is not as high, perhaps, as I would like it to be. But we are selecting our best and our brightest and it is very important that we have some capacity to keep doing that into the future.

Senator McKENZIE: In summary, it is successfully targeting people to support our future research capabilities, giving them that international engagement, bringing them home and connecting them to industry—tick, tick, tick on all fronts, I think. It is fabulous. Can you explain then why the Future Fellowships program was designated a terminating program? Can you maybe give those who do not get the implications of it being a terminating program an explanation of what that means in the budget context?

Prof. Byrne : The terminating nature of the program was set at the time of the initial creation of the program. The consequence of that is that we run it for a particular time and the funding stops after that period. That is what 'terminating' means.

Senator McKENZIE: And your internal review found that that was a good idea?

Prof. Byrne : The internal review made a comment about the value of the scheme and how it is contributing to the research landscape in Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Paul. I thank officers from the ARC.

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