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Senate Estimates: Economics Committee

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 17 Oct 2012

Economics Committee

Estimates hearings 17 October 2012

  • Senator RHIANNON
  • Senator Chris Evans
  • Prof. Byrne

 Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, what has been the impact on research jobs of the freezing of research grants as part of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook process?

Senator Chris Evans: Professor Byrne may be able to help you, Senator, but I do not think there has been any impact yet. It has only been a few weeks and these are for grants that have not been awarded.

Senator RHIANNON: I am interested in the research programs and how you think it is going to play out. Also, in terms of the delays in research, has any research been postponed or gone overseas as a result?

Senator Chris Evans: The first thing to say is that we have just dealt with this issue at some length. If you are asking about the freeze, or pause, on grant rounds of a few weeks, no, that has not sent research overseas. That is a ridiculous proposition. What it means is that the process for the grants that might have been made four weeks ago has been paused and once the outcome of the pause, or freeze, is known, you will be able to quickly assess whether current funding has been maintained or whether the funding has been reprofiled or cut. That sort of announcement, I am sure, will be around the time of the MYEFO, but I think your question really overstates where we are at.

Senator RHIANNON: But, considering that there have been a number of instances where researchers have gone overseas because of the lack of support in Australia, is it something that you are mindful of in terms of at least the perception it might have, irrespective of how it plays out—

Senator Chris Evans: Senator, this perception is created by people like you making these claims, to be frank.

Senator RHIANNON: I am not making baseless claims, Minister.

Senator Chris Evans: Well, they are.

Senator RHIANNON: You could not deny that people working in the solar field, renewable energy being the classic example, did not get support here and went overseas, to both the US and China. That is well documented. It is not a claim.

Senator Chris Evans: But, in the context of the pause on these funding rounds, it is quite an outrageous suggestion and just plain wrong. I also suggest to you, Senator, that if you look at the number of researchers who have come into the country in recent years to be part of flagships, to be part of the SKA project, to just have this one-dimensional view of what is going on in science and research given the record funding under this government and to suggest that there is an outflow of researchers is just wrong.

Senator RHIANNON: I would have thought that a responsible government would be mindful of what has happened in the past and would learn from that to ensure that when you take such actions it does not play out in that way. That is all I am trying to explore here, Minister.

Senator Chris Evans: Senator, no-one apart from you is suggesting that it is playing out in that way. I do not mean to be aggressive, but sometimes you make these statements and they are just plain wrong. We have record investment in higher education research and in science and research. I put to you that that has seen a growth in employment of researchers and an inflow of researchers. No doubt there is an outflow of researchers associated with particular projects, as is always the case. The fact is that international science and research is international, and we have many people from overseas working in our universities and in our science institutions who bring their expertise to projects being conducted here. But to suggest that there is some great net loss occurring is just not right.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Minister. I am also interested in the status of the $500 million regional priorities round of the Education Investment Fund. Is the government committed to the full value of this round, and can we expect an announcement of outcomes in the second half of 2012, as was indicated in the EIF documentation?

Senator Chris Evans: The first thing is that this has got nothing to do with the ARC and officers currently before the chair, but I can indicate to you that consideration of that EIF round is continuing and the government will make an announcement in due course.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Minister, and I am sorry that I put that into the wrong slot. I also wanted to take up issues to do with Excellence in Research. Can you indicate when the ERA 2012 evaluation process will be completed?

Prof. Byrne : Senator, I made the reply to Senator Mason a moment ago that we are on track to complete that process by the end of the year.

Senator RHIANNON: That is good—sorry, I am just bouncing from different estimates at the moment. The ERA 2010 results were used in the calculation of the distribution of the 2012 round of Sustainable Research Excellence block grant for universities. Will the ERA 2012 results feed into the 2013 SRE distribution?

Prof. Byrne : Again, Senator, I answered that question when Senator Mason raised it and the answer is still the same: the 2010 results were used. It is my understanding that the 2012 results will be used in the same way. That is not the responsibility of the Australian Research Council; that decision is made elsewhere. The allocation of the SRE is not made within the SRE.

Senator RHIANNON: I am also interested—and, again, I apologise if I am doubling up; it has just been a bit of a challenge—in whether you can provide any advice as to the level of funding to projects to commence in 2013 under the linkage and discovery schemes and when the announcements on the discovery project round may be expected.

Prof. Byrne : I do not have any information yet on the timing of the announcement of the discovery round. I am an optimistic person and I hope we can get it out under the usual schedule. With regard to the other numbers, we would like to table our strategic plan and the numbers are there for those programs.

Senator RHIANNON: I have got more, but did you want to accept that?

Prof. Byrne : We will provide the time lines to you.

Senator Chris Evans: Senator, earlier Senator Mason asked a set of questions and the ARC said they would table the strategic plan, which is all the detail of each of the funding programs disaggregated from the budget line items. I think you will find all of that is in the strategic plan.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, I want to go to the issue of the comments that are coming through in some areas about cuts to discretionary grants spending. Is the minister aware of the mounting anecdotal evidence that in the face of rumours internationally mobile researchers are beginning to consider moving to Australia or staying in Australia as a risky career option because of some of the developments in this area?

Senator Chris Evans: Am I aware of mounting anecdotal evidence and rumours? No.

Senator RHIANNON: So you are not aware of any of the discussions going on about how it will play out with cuts to the discretionary grants spending.

Senator Chris Evans: Are these questions directed to the ARC? You are asking me to respond to what you claim is mounting anecdotal evidence—I do not know what that means—and rumours to do with discretionary grants. Are they within the ARC or are we just generally having a chat?

Senator RHIANNON: No, we are not generally having a chat.

Senator Chris Evans: We are in the ARC, Mr Chairman, and if we are not asking questions of the ARC, I cannot help.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I have been listening to this exchange between you and the minister. We are dealing with the Australian Research Council. Your questions should be directed to that organisation as to grants and the like. If the minister needs to involve himself, he will but really we are talking about the ARC. I would ask you to direct your questions to that agency.

Senator RHIANNON: For the chief executive: we have got the end, I understand, of the Future Fellowships Program and that could remove a generation of researchers from Australia, which is how some people are seeing it. Could you comment on that, please?

Prof. Byrne : The Future Fellowships has one more round to go. When it was announced initially, it was for a fixed period only and that will come to the end after that period.

Senator RHIANNON: Again, doesn't that generate a perception that it is becoming tough for researchers in Australia, particularly—and the minister identified this—in this increasingly mobile development within research across the world?

Senator Chris Evans: If you are asking the officer to give an opinion about an assertion you raise, that is not his role. His role here is to answer questions about the policy.

Prof. Byrne : May I make a comment about that? One of the things that I have been doing as the new CEO of the Australian Research Council is to go around to universities. I think the Future Fellowships program has been a very good program. Senator Mason mentioned before the quality of our programs; this is one that has been very good. I think it was a very good initiative of the government when it was announced and it has had a significant and very positive effect in all institutions and both brought in a lot of researchers within the system in Australia and brought a lot of researchers from overseas back to Australia. So it has been a very positive scheme. Of course it is unfortunate that is was announced for a fixed time only. It would be nice to be able to do this forever, but that is the circumstance we live with. As I said, the impression that I have had from every single university I have talked to is of their strong appreciation of that scheme and the difference it has made in the sector, as I say, as a device to bring people back to Australia and establish people in research careers in Australia. So it has been very positive.

Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the current round of linkage grants, I understand they close on 14 November?

Prof. Byrne : Because of the pause, the freeze, we have not even opened it.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, that was what my question was—

Prof. Byrne : We have not opened it.

Senator RHIANNON: When do you plan to open it and—

Prof. Byrne : When we get information about whether or not our grants are affected by the government's pause, freeze, arrangement. Then we will have some clarity and be able to determine the consequences for that program. We do not know at the moment. At the moment it is captured. We were not able to open it. We were scheduled to close it, as you said, but of course since we have not opened it it is hard to close it.

Senator RHIANNON: It sounds from the way that you have responded that it could even be after next year, that you really have no idea.

Prof. Byrne : Again, I do not know when the MYEFO process will be completed but, as the minister has indicated, we will know whether, and which of, our grants are affected when that is announced. I am hopeful that is going to be in a short while.

Senator RHIANNON: Would this delay be damaging to the relationship between industry and universities on a number of collaborative research projects and their relationships?

Prof. Byrne : Again, it is hard to know what the consequence will be because we have not had it have an effect yet. At the moment it is captured because we have not been able to open it, but in the background universities are still having conversations with their partner organisations in anticipation of having some clarity about whether our grants will or will not be affected. Those conversations are still going on in universities. When we hear whether the program is affected or not we can progress and hopefully progress quickly with those.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor Byrne. Thank you to the officers from the Australian Research Council for your assistance today.





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