Welcome message from the CEO

Professor Sue Thomas

Welcome to our first edition of ARChway for the year, where we find ourselves already nearing the end of the first quarter of 2019 and moving at a fast pace. 

Here are just some of the significant happenings recently… 

In the early months of 2019 we have had the opportunity to take part in the official launches of a number of ARC-funded major investments. In early February, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) at the University of New South Wales. Led by 2018 Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons, CQC2T is a global leader in quantum computing research, manipulating individual atoms to develop quantum processes and optical platforms that can transfer information over secure communication networks.

Late February also saw the official launch of the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Food Safety in the Fresh Produce Industry based at The University of Sydney. Researchers at this Centre are working with industry on interesting work to address food safety, and will develop practical solutions to address risks and challenges facing the fresh produce sector including contamination and foodborne illness.

Just as some centres are commencing their research activities, others are representing the other end of the spectrum. This week, the ARC participated in a special event organised by Stem Cells Australia, a Special Research Initiative of the ARC, to recognise and celebrate its achievements as the Special Research Initiative for Stem Cells Science comes to its conclusion after eight years and $21m of funding delivered through the ARC. You can read more about the achievements of Stem Cells Australia in the feature article: Stem Cells Australia celebrates eight years.

We have also already, as we near the end of March, had three announcements of successful projects awarded funding through the Linkage Projects scheme—with total funding of $16.9 million awarded for 38 unique projects that will forge new partnerships between researchers and business, industry, community organisations and other publicly funded research agencies. 

This edition of ARChway features ARC-funded research that focuses on the Discovery Indigenous scheme, and another that highlights the research of Professor Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales, on the surprising benefits of sadness, the outcome of an ARC Discovery Projects grant. Both of these articles, as well as the many research highlights in this edition, showcase the incredible diversity of research being undertaken by recipients under the National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP).

Future Fellowships induction forum 

I am pleased to let you know that this year we held an inaugural Future Fellowships Induction forum for the newly awarded ARC 2018 Future Fellows at the ARC in Canberra in February. The intention of the forum, hoping to be continued into the future, is to introduce these research leaders to essential information about the management of their projects at the beginning of their funding period. It is also a fantastic opportunity for new grant recipients to build professional networks within their cohort and across disciplines. The Future Fellows Induction forum complements the other forums that the ARC runs for new Directors of the Industrial Transformation Research Program Training Centres and Hubs, and for new ARC Australian Laureate Fellows. 

Streamlining of grants processes

On the NCGP front, it has certainly been a busy period for the sector submitting applications. As mentioned last edition, the ARC has been focusing on streamlining efforts to make our processes more efficient and reduce the burden on researchers and research office staff. 

Recently, we have been hard at work looking at opportunities to streamline our Post-Award processes and grant administration. There are a number of initiatives detailed in this edition of ARChway including simplification of variation requirements and the release of the latest improved Final Reports forms that include more auto-populated information, which I encourage you to find out more about. These initiatives will reduce the burden on participants on ARC projects when completing their Final Reports.

National Interest Test Outreach

You will be aware that the ARC introduced a new National Interest Test (NIT) to its grants processes following its announcement by the Minister for Education, The Hon Dan Tehan, late last year. Since that time, I and others at the ARC have been speaking with DVCsR and Research Office staff from universities around Australia to clarify the function and implementation of the NIT. ARC Executive Directors have also been engaged in outreach in the sector providing further information.

On 27 November 2018, the Minister for Education announced the details of the new NIT to be implemented by the ARC. The NIT applies to all selection rounds that have opened for applications since 31 October 2018 which include Discovery Indigenous for funding commencing in 2020 (IN20); Discovery Projects for funding commencing in 2020 (DP20); Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities for funding commencing in 2020 (LE20); Linkage Projects for funding applied for in 2019 (LP19); and Special Research Initiative in Excellence in Antarctic Science for funding commencing in 2020 (SRIEAS). 

The ‘benefit and impact statement’ text box on ARC application forms has now been replaced with a ‘national interest test statement’ text box. In this space, we now ask applicants to explain in plain English, in around 100-150 words, ‘the extent to which the research contributes to Australia’s national interest through its potential to have economic, commercial, environmental, social or cultural benefits to the Australian community.’ 

It is my role to consider the recommendations from the Selection Advisory Committee, following the peer review process and the applicant’s response to the NIT. I will be looking at whether the statement is easy to understand and seems reasonable, that is, the claims are logical and specific to the research project being proposed. I will be seeking information from Administering Organisations on applications where I have concern about how they meet the NIT based on the information provided in the application form. Following this, I will provide recommendations to the Minister regarding the applications to be approved for funding, the level of funding and duration of projects and those that are not recommended for funding. 

The Minister will then consider my recommendations and will determine which applications will be funded. He may also consider the NIT in determining which grants will be funded. The Minister will announce the funding outcomes and if there are any applications that were recommended to, but not funded by the Minister, applicants will be notified of this outcome.

Review of the Science and Research Priorities as they apply to the NCGP

At the end of last year, the Minister for Education also announced a review of the 2015 Science and Research Priorities as they apply to the National Competitive Grants Program, and in February, membership of the panel to undertake this review was announced

In my role as Chair of this panel, we will be considering how the priorities are used and whether their structure appropriately supports the NCGP process; how the ARC’s use of the priorities relates to government science, research and innovation strategies; and how the ARC’s use of the priorities compares to other Commonwealth research funding programs. We will also be examining the areas of strategic priority that have been identified by Australia’s Learned Academies and the areas in which Australia exhibits research strength, or which present opportunities to establish Australia as a world leader in research as identified by the ARC’s Excellence in Research for Australia report. I look forward to reporting to you the panel’s findings by the end of July.

ERA and EI

Finally, and very importantly, the ARC is gearing up to release the fourth full assessment for Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) 2018 National Report, which has been highly anticipated. 

ERA will provide vital information on the state of Australian research, delivering a ‘national stocktake’ of discipline level research areas, identifying emerging research areas, and allowing for international comparison of Australian research across all discipline areas. The ERA data will also enable a deeper understanding of the Australian university research workforce, its gender balance, and the publishing practices of academics.

I can assure you that a great deal of work has been being done behind the scenes to finalise this report and release it to the sector without any delay. 

Following the release of the ERA 2018 report, the results for the first Engagement and Impact assessment (EI 2018) are expected to also be released. EI 2018 will complement ERA, providing clarity to the Government and Australian public about how their investments in university research translate into tangible benefits for all Australians. To do this, EI will highlight some of the best practices from universities in translating research into real world benefits—and impact studies that received a high rating in EI 2018 will also be published on the ARC website. I know the sector is also eagerly awaiting this report.

I hope you enjoy reading this edition of ARChway.

Image: Professor Sue Thomas.
Image credit: Norman Plant Photography.