17 December 2020

ARC Centres of Excellence are the ARC’s largest regular investment, with grant rounds since 2003, currently awarding up to $5m per annum over seven years to significant collaborations between universities, research organisations, governments and businesses in Australia and overseas. Although there are some parallels with other government research centre schemes in Australia and overseas, the scheme has sufficiently unique attributes to make it an interesting object of study in itself.

Dr Megan Power is a postgraduate researcher, whose PhD dissertation focussed on the inter-relationships between ARC Centres of Excellence, Higher Education Institutions and the wider research system. The results of her investigations, which were conducted through a scholarship between Monash University and Warwick University in the UK, independently and without funding from the ARC, are now in the process of being published.

‘My study was a response to calls for a greater understanding of the ways network-like organisations develop, particularly in global science communities,’ says Dr Power. ‘After looking at some equivalent schemes overseas, I decided to focus on Centres of Excellence as a potential ‘ideal type’ from which to view both institution-like and network-like interactions.’

One of the advantages of the Centres scheme is that, with a new cohort announced every few years and granted similar core funding, it is possible to compare cohorts, as well as to observe the developments of each centre with others from the same cohort.

‘I was interested in finding out, based on the experiences of those closest to establishing Centres, what happens through the lifespan of Centres that is independent of the science?’ says Dr Power.

Contributing to Dr Power’s research were participants from 17 Centres of Excellence – including Senior Researchers, Directors and Chief Operating Officers (COOs) – who provided detailed perspectives of the workings, challenges and initiatives of their Centres, and how research organisation and engagement was managed.

‘Many researchers have an interest in science collaboration, but few have looked at how scientists come together,’ says Dr Power. ‘All Centre recipients are highly motivated to achieving science excellence, but they can be reluctant leaders, sometimes needing a bit of ‘arm twisting’ to take the role.’

‘Unlike big research institutes, which can be quite hierarchical, participants describe Centres in unique ways. For example, one leader saw themselves more as a ‘lead violinist’ who leads from within a chamber orchestra, rather than conducting from the podium.’

Dr Power says that Centres of Excellence are of particular interest for the study of emerging networks because they begin with a non-prescriptive governance structure, which can be quite experimental and collective, and that initial structure then evolves over the life of the Centre.

‘Part of what I’m trying to propose from a theory point of view is that network development into a more recognisable organisational form, like a Centre of Excellence, is on the edge of collective governance. This relates to work by Elinor Ostrom who proposes that communities in complex environments can develop their own governance based around ‘Common Pool Resources (CPR)’ independent of (for example) State regulation. Centres exhibit an ability to treat their ARC funding as a type of CPR and facilitate a collective benefit – so if you can support collective governance through COOs and others who understand how it works, then you may be able to support the development of more effective network-like organisations,’ says Dr Power.

The research looked closely at the interactions between staff with different roles in Centres, including the relationship between Chief Investigators (CIs) and the Centre leadership. Dr Power says that the complexity of a Centre, which may have dozens of CIs across several institutional nodes, led to some interviewees comparing the governance difficulties across this wide group to the experience of ‘herding cats’. But despite a number of similar references to ‘wrangling researchers’, Dr Power also found the autonomy of CIs was valued for network building nationally, particularly by connecting younger researchers, as well as internationally, through raising the profile of the Centre.” 

Another aspect of governance that was of interest to Dr Power was the interaction that Centres of Excellence have with their host institution. She found that Centres are often quite independent of the universities that host them, and that in some cases the influence flowed in the opposite direction.

‘One of the mathematical measures of the effectiveness of networks is whether information ‘diffuses out’ or ‘percolates’ back through the network. When the communication goes out the network potentially grows. However, an interesting observation of the research was that novel policy ideas from a number of Centres could be shown to ‘percolate’ back into and influence the host institution’s policy settings. This can lead to wider innovative change.’

‘Because Centres can be relatively agile, this means that they can lead the way to where institutions may follow. Making change in an institution as big as a whole university can be glacial. Their identity is fixed. But Centres are potentially agile enough to test ideas that the university may not yet be ready to embrace.’

For example, Dr Power says that some Centres have been out in front of their host institution in developing policies on gender equity and diversity; setting targets and instituting recruitment policies well in advance of the targets and policies of their host institution (one Centre was recently featured by the ARC for its work in this area).

‘In this way, Centres look to be innovating as an organisation in their own right, with potential to fill an institutional policy gap,’ says Dr Power. ‘They can do that quite readily whereas the institution can’t just rebrand itself or change its culture overnight.’

Dr Power’s research found that over time, Centres of Excellence can tend to become more hierarchical and professionalised, with sophisticated marketing and an established place within their host institutions. This was especially so in Centres that won a second round of funding, after the initial seven years had elapsed.

‘One participant said that after the second grant, their university became more engaged. And as the scheme has evolved over the years, it’s clear that some universities have embraced the role of host university. However, it is also healthy when you see the middle tier universities picking up [a Centre of Excellence] because they can also be a game changer and make the big institutions follow suit.’

In sharing her results with the participants in the study, Dr Power also says that some of her findings were a revelation.

‘Centre participants I followed up with after forwarding the report, usually laughed because there were so many common experiences they had all had. One common story was the disconnect the Centres felt at times between them as a National Centre set within a university and most participants were bemused by this situation. Interestingly, this sense of ‘ambivalence’ is found in studies of similar research centres in the US.

Also in common were use of terms by participants such as; connecting, cohesion and community, which emphasised the deeper cultural aspects and focus on science in establishing effective Centres. Because this study was the first time for many that they had shared some of these stories, participants found these shared experiences positive to read.’

‘So we have learned a great deal, but from my perspective there remains a lot more to explore and a lot to learn from the Centres of Excellence story, particularly how their leadership and development could inform our wider understanding of network-like organisations,’ says Dr Power.

Image: Dr Megan Power.