Professor Sharon Robinson

Image: Professor Sharon Robinson.
Image credit: University of Wollongong.

The ARC College of Experts is made up of experts of international standing, drawn from all corners of the Australian research community, including from higher education institutions, industry and public sector research organisations. College of Experts members are engaged by the ARC for appointments of one to three years, during which time they play a key role in identifying research excellence, moderating external assessments, and make funding recommendations under the ARC’s National Competitive Grants Program.

Professor Sharon Robinson is Co-Director of the Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions and Senior Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Wollongong, and has been involved with the College of Experts since 2014.

“My work involves choosing assessors for proposals, reviewing proposals, checking that Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE) provisions have been taken into account by expert reviewers, discussing proposals with fellow college assessors before meetings, chairing and being a member of meetings to rank proposals, preparing budgets for funded projects, and giving feedback to the ARC.”

“Being on the ARC College of Experts really highlights the importance of writing your research project proposal for a general expert audience. My main surprise has been the range of proposals that one ends up assessing and hence the importance of explaining your research to a non-expert,” says Professor Robinson.

At the heart of the ARC’s National Competitive Grants Program are the ‘selection meetings’ where College of Experts members come together at the ARC offices in Canberra to make the final funding recommendations for the hundreds of proposals submitted in each round. Before the meeting, all proposals have already been given detailed assessments by the ARC’s strong community of external assessors, and this provides a preliminary ranking, which is then taken into meetings arranged by broad discipline groupings, for discussion in detail by College of Experts members.

Image: Professor Kerry London

Image: Professor Kerry London.
Image credit: Western Sydney University.

Professor Kerry London, who is a Professor of Built Environment and Urban Transformation, and Deputy Dean at the School of Computing, Engineering & Mathematics at Western Sydney University, has been a College of Experts member since 2015. In this time, she has assessed Linkage Projects, Discovery Projects, Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards, Discovery Indigenous, Australian Laureate Fellowships and ARC Centres of Excellence proposals, and she says that she particularly enjoys working across different discipline areas. 

“I am on the humanities and creative arts (HCA) panel. However, I am very interdisciplinary—with built environment as my core discipline—so this often means I am assessing additional proposals from Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences (SBE) and Engineering, Information and Computing Sciences (EIC), and in the last round, I did Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences (MPCE) proposals.”

“I have enjoyed this all. I think assessors and carriages should be nurtured for interdisciplinary panel work. It requires a special kind of thinking,” says Professor London.

College of Experts members like Professors London and Robinson assist the ARC in implementing peer review reforms in established and emerging disciplines as well as interdisciplinary areas, and provide strategic advice to the ARC on developments in these areas.

For the ARC, an important part of running the ARC College of Experts is maintaining a high standard of professionalism and ethical conduct in its operations. The ARC provides training and peer review resources to support the assessor community and College of Experts. The ARC Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Policy is also designed to ensure that all members of the ARC College of Experts are aware of the confidentiality obligations associated with their assessor activities and that conflicts of interest are identified and addressed in a rigorous and transparent way.

“I have also sat on other grant assessment panels and I think the ARC system does stand up as a well run system that is fair and transparent,” says Professor Robinson.  “The ARC system tries to address aspects such as ROPE and unconscious bias more than the other panels I have been on. I think the level of attention to Conflict of Interest is far higher at ARC and that the balance between individual expert assessment, general assessor assessment and conferral and the College of Experts is appropriate.” 

“I have been really very impressed by the professionalism of my fellow college members and the care with which they assess proposals and consider ROPE. I like the way they listen to other members’ opinions and that decisions are made as fairly as possible. The meetings really are very collegiate and I have really enjoyed interacting with my fellow College of Experts members,” says Professor Robinson.

Although the workload can be high, one advantage of being a College of Experts member is the insight into what makes a successful proposal, which comes from reading hundreds of proposals and seeing which ones stand out.

“I look for a compelling argument to conduct the research now. Many applicants put forward excellent arguments, but for outstanding proposals, a compelling argument to fund this project right now is a standout. I also look for mentoring in proposals, clear aims and objectives, clear research questions, and a novel methodology that is clearly mapped to the aims, which is clearly mapped back to the phases of the methodology. I also look for a really well written rejoinder, that has ‘bite’ to it,” says Professor London.

“That first page is really important in framing the assessors’ reading. Why is this research so important? Why is this team the best people to do the work? Why does it have to happen now and here? The significance of the research has to stand out and the proposal must be a clear fit with the appropriate scheme,” says Professor Robinson. 

Both Professors Robinson and London say that being a College of Experts member has taught them to read and assess proposals much more quickly than when they began. It has also given them a new appreciation of all the great research that is happening around Australia. “That is one plus to assessing 100 proposals in a year!” says Professor Robinson.

“The very best proposals really do stand out and you really enjoy reading them because you can see the importance and the thought that has gone into them. The excitement of the team to do the research is apparent,” says Professor Robinson.

ARC will be seeking nominations for the 2019 College of Experts next year.   

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