Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Put your fate in your hands, take a chance, roll the dice… The Australian Research Council is not worth saving, @ARC_Tracker

[This is a heavily redacted version of my original draft]

Australian academics were given a free kick in the research funding policy debate recently.  The acting Minister for Education, Stuart Robert, rejected the recommendation from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to fund a handful of research proposals.

Unlike nearly everything in research funding policy, it became headline news.  People from beyond the academy had more than a passing interest in what was going on, and it was an opportunity to bring the public on board for extremely overdue reforms of the ARC.

Instead, we blew it.  Describing the decision as a use of a ‘veto’ (which it isn’t, but poetic licence for advocacy is forgivable), Australian academics began describing the Minister’s decision as using ‘God-like’ powers, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, and–most surprising of all–a threat to liberal democracy.  It was embarrassing, and academia made itself look unnecessarily feeble, pathetic, and precious.

If making decisions on funding recommendations is a ‘God-like’ power, we truly have reimagined the Lord as a mere conjurer of cheap tricks.  And if deciding funding outcomes is a ‘God-like’ power, do we really want the ARC making those calls instead of an elected official?  More importantly–as I’ll argue here–do we really want either Ministers or government panels telling universities how to spend research funds?

University funding in Australia is a complex, messy beast.  Very, very few people are sufficiently versed in the system to discuss it properly, and those that are sound completely insane when they talk about how it works.  For my sins, I had to specialise in the research funding end of the system (my sins were many and profound to warrant this punishment).  I never specialised in the teaching income end, and it looks even more horrible.  Most academics remain blissfully unaware of how absolutely ridiculous the system is, and most public commentary on research funding is driven by people who have had a fleeting glimpse behind the curtain and then feel qualified to talk an extremely big game.

Tweaks upon tweaks have trashed the research funding system.  There are parts that make absolutely no sense unless you know the secret history of policy interventions that spectacularly backfired.  Schemes designed to improve success rates of certain cohorts ended up with lower success rates.  Schemes designed to bring Australian researchers back from overseas instead resulted in cost-shifting exercises to fund existing researchers.  Policy interventions to stop academics from spending research funds on globe-trotting junkets resulted in a bafflingly arbitrary bifurcation of funding into ‘travel’ and ‘field research’.  Policy interventions to support career interruptions now result in academics divulging incredible amounts of personal information to complete strangers.  Never able to admit a mistake, the research funding system just incorporated these errors into its core model and lurched on.

I should be fair. There are other things that trashed the system. The responses of academics themselves, for example.  Remember: your average head of department does not have a background in managing complex budgets, HR issues, or strategic planning.  They are more likely to have a background in 15th Century French literature than skills in change management.  So a policy might have made a lot of sense at a system level–say, removing publications from HERDC–had every chance of completely screwing over your basic early career researcher (ECR) who now discovered that there was more value to the University in you getting a weapons contract from Defence than you publishing a book on–to take an example completely at random–a niche area of law that has wide social significance.  Why did it make sense at a system level?  Publications in the HERDC system were mirroring the data from research income in the HERDC system (if you had lots of publications, you invariably had lots of research income), and then this publication data was repeated again for the ERA exercise.  Universities were collecting data then reporting it twice when one of those times was redundant.  Why did it screw over your basic ECR?  Because heads of department would look at that policy decision and calculate that it was better in the short term to reward ‘rain makers’ who could bring in research income over those who didn’t.  From the point of view of the department, it was better to have an inefficient policy because it kept the highly active publishers ‘visible’.

We also have a third set of actors: research administrators.  One argument that is often made is that the ARC is a very lean organisation.  If you look at the ARC budget as a whole, a lot of money goes out the door for research and comparatively little is spent on public servants.  This argument is flatly wrong.  The ARC is lean on paper because it externalises the costs of its decisions.  If the ARC introduces a reporting requirement, it doesn’t pay the cost of that reporting requirement.  The cost of that decision is pushed over to universities where they hire a ‘research manager’ to ensure the forms are correctly filled out, in the right font, with the correct number of words, so that the APS 4 at the ARC won’t arbitrarily reject the report for aesthetic reasons.  Business working with universities complained that the research funding model designed to subsidise applied research (‘Linkage’) was pretty broken.  There were two chances to apply per year, and it would take months to get an outcome.  Wouldn’t it be better if universities and business could apply all year round?  Yes it would.  And so the ARC scrapped the deadlines for Linkage Projects… only for research administrators to reintroduce the deadlines in order to manage their workloads.  If I want to apply for a Linkage Project, the ARC will accept them all year round but my research office won’t.

But all of this is mere window dressing. Fundamentally, there is one question that should be central in the debate: how should we allocate funding for research activities in Australia?  To date, I have never encountered a person who said: ‘What we need is a government agency to micromanage the research expenditure of universities.’  Despite the fact that I have never heard anybody give this answer, that is exactly the model that we’ve got.

The ARC model externalises decisions about how, precisely, to expend research funds to a government agency.  Universities say to the ARC, ‘I would like to spend money on this project’ or ‘I would like money to hire this person’ or ‘I would like some funding to collaborate with other universities’.  These requests go to a government-appointed panel, confusingly and incorrectly called the ARC College of Experts for a decision.  There are currently 201 members of the College, but they divide them up into panels broadly clustered around disciplines.  The College of Experts, because they’re not actually experts, then allocates these requests to readers believed to be experts for peer review assessment.  This is a moment of pseudo-randomness: the fate of the request to the ARC can largely depend on lucking out on who the peer reviewers will be (or even if they’re experts in the field of the proposal).  Will they be fair-minded, insightful critics who can spot the difference between a high quality proposal and a low quality proposal?  Or, more commonly, will they have an axe to grind, thinking that their job is to police the system and shoot down research that isn’t aligned with their own?  In these peer reviewed reports, I’ve seen racism, sexism, ageism, and other outright unprofessional behaviour.  It is material that, in any other government decision making process, would obviously strike you as inappropriate, and yet the ARC depends so heavily upon these peer review reports that they’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming, to a process that at least partially deals with it.  But rolling the dice and getting one of these maniacs as your assessor can be fatal to your proposal, and we know that it’s occurring regularly.

One feature of a rational and efficient policy mechanism is predictable results. If you submit the same application several times, a rational, efficient, and fit-for-purpose system will provide roughly equivalent results each time.  But we know this isn’t the case.  Applicants who do a bit of a tidy up on their CV suddenly jump from the bottom end of the ranking to the top, or vice-versa; the exact same project goes from being completely unfeasible to outstanding.  This is a system based on chance, not on selecting the best quality research.

For all the nonsense rhetoric about the Minister having ‘God-like’ powers and being a threat to liberal democracy, it is surprisingly difficult to hold the ARC to basic norms of administrative decision making, including making decisions consistent with legislation.  The funniest example of this went to Court: in Ghanem v Australian Research Council (No 2), the ARC was found to have unlawfully provided Dr Ghanem a third opportunity to apply for a Future Fellowship, despite their funding rules at the time stating an applicant could only apply twice.  Dr Ghanem had to sue in person because he couldn’t convince his organisation, the University of Canberra, to support his action against them.  Dr Ghanem was offered the third opportunity to satisfy a complaint about the ARC demonstrating bias towards him, but the ARC wasn’t lawfully permitted to offer this.  Dr Ghanem ended up with no relief, but it raised questions about how fast and loose the ARC was playing with its own rules.

This behaviour was repeated recently with the ‘no pre-prints’ rule being radically reinterpreted in a way that no rational decision maker would decide.  Yes, it’s true, the rule was there for everybody to see, but the (obviously mistaken) belief was that the rule would be interpreted reasonably to avoid people stuffing their applications with ambitious futurities.  Without warning, the ARC went nuclear and ruled a bunch of applications ineligible.  The question everybody was asking: was this the time that universities would consider suing the ARC for breaching basic administrative law norms?

Answer: no.  Most likely reason was that the ARC has mostly unchecked discretionary powers when it comes to post-award management of grants.  Nobody wants to piss off the organisation that can call time on all your overdue reports and stop granting extension requests, requiring universities to return unspent funds.

Why does anybody think it’s appropriate to have a government-appointed panel and a statutory agency micromanage university research?  Especially through a system that is so irrational and inefficient?

The use of the ‘veto’ (it’s not a veto) was an opportunity for academics to get public support for reform of the research funding system.  It was an opportunity to say: ‘Hang on, could we please redraw the line between academia and the ARC to reduce the amount of meddling from a statutory agency in our affairs?’  It was an opportunity to say: ‘Hey, could we please address the escalating costs of this system that are not being paid for by the ARC?’  It was an opportunity to say: ‘Look, we really need to rethink the way that research is funded in Australia to prioritise academic freedom.’

Instead, we got senior academics and media commentators thinking it’s our role to defend the ARC from the Minister.  It’s as if we’ve got the worst case of Stockholm’s ever recorded.  Here’s the statutory agency that treats academics like an enemy that needs to be ‘managed’, and here we are saying that the peer-review process is actually really rather good, and the ARC processes ensure only the best research gets funded, and God-like powers really should be left to a government-appointed panel instead of to the Minister else we risk threatening liberal democracy itself.

To put all of this into really simple terms: we have very sensible people who have significant expertise in policy analysis saying that a lottery would be a preferable system to the expensive and irrational ARC system.

Why are we defending this?!  The Minister made a terrible decision not because the ARC made a great decision that should be defended, but because we have a model that centres decisions about research funding on a government process instead of on a university process.  We are we defending this?!  For what possible reason are we defending this?!

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