The Australian Research Council is undergoing change. The Hon. Stuart Robert MP – our current Federal Minister of Education – outlined in a Letter of Expectation changes to the College of Experts, the ARC Linkage scheme, the National Interest Test, a request to act on reviews findings, and governance changes. On 14th December 2021, Minister Robert in a media release situated these changes in terms of research commercialisation, innovation and post-COVID 19 economic growth.
The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia summed up the consensus view and sentiment in an Academy statement on 15th December 2021. The Academy’s critique raised questions about the Minister’s funding emphasis, commercialisation strategy, and funding for Humanities and Social Sciences researchers. Twitter sentiment from many Australian academics reflected the Academy’s concerns.
Given the ARC changes: what can you Do as a researcher?
First, you need to have an internal locus of control for your research program. You will face external forces and potential barriers for undertaking your research – from disappointment at funders to university restructures – that will need courage, determination and focus to overcome. Cultivate antifragility: try and grow from the disorder around you. Take some time to work out what you can cope with and what you are also prepared to walk away from or to work around. If you have a funding landscape for your research program then you will not be so reliant on one or two funders that will be like a monopsony (one-sided market or reliant funder) that other researchers may face.
Second, try and de-fuse from your research program and try to understand both the funders you apply to and the broader sociopolitical landscape that they are in. The old Keynesian economic model of government-supported research ended around 2008 with the Great Recession or the Global Financial Crisis. I saw the effects of this in 2010-11 at non-Group of 8 universities in Australia: institutions that had high debt levels and frequent, ineffective organisational restructures. Funders have faced the same pressures in our contemporary neoliberal political economy.
Third, take some time to learn about cost-benefit analysis. Many of the Minister’s announced changes have to do with organisational reforms to the ARC that probably would have happened anyway. The changes to the College of Experts – to bring more indusry assessors and other end-users into grants assessment processes – is in line with the neoliberal emphasis on outcome-based, translational research and commercialisation. Cost-benefit and innovation models underpin this funding approach. If you learn the frameworks and the language involved then you will better understand the mindset of government, university and funder senior decision-makers.
Fourth, ask yourself: Who will benefit from my research? What kind of Change am I trying to bring into the world from my dreams, ideas, and passions? Then look at the material context of how such Changes might actually play out in the world – what their second- and third-order effects might be. Social materialist perspectives may be helpful here to better understand this dialectic between your researcher subjectivity and the actual, lived conditions of the world that you are dealing with. You might be able to set little processes in place that lead to cascades, diffusions, or that have ripple effects over time and space. One value of history is its case studies on the gulf between intent and effect, or between goal and outcome.
Funders like the Australian Research Council will continue to face changes and pressures in the future. Like the Cold War fascination with Kremlinology about Soviet Russia in political science, there are both insights yet also speculations that can eat away at your time, emotions, and mental health. If you reflect and act on some of the strategies that are suggested above then you will be better able to proactively deal with the uncertainties that funders will continue to face in the future. I look forward to learning about and reading more of your research.