A Note on the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery program

Yesterday the ARC released the results for the main research programs; Discovery projects and Early career fellowships (DECRA) (see http://www.arc.gov.au/discovery-programme-0). One particular interest is the statistics for success rate regarding the discovery project program. The ARC released some interesting results (http://www.arc.gov.au/selection-report-discovery-projects-2016) showing various outcome statistics (career age and gender (see below), outcome per university and so on)

I would strongly recommend to read the excellent analysis of these outcome statistics on Adam Micolich’s blog (https://pacificsoutheast.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/fixing-arc-discovery-projects/ and https://pacificsoutheast.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/demographics-of-destruction-a-bonus-analysis/).

I was frustrated with these outcome statistics as these don’t give the full picture and the ARC included in their statistics lead and non lead Co-investigators (CIs) which confounds and distorts the statistics outcome. Of course a successful project in science results in the collaboration between researchers. However, the Australian funding system still relies heavily on the principal investigator or lead CI to evaluate a project grant. Additionally the lead CI receives the bulk, if not all grant incomes to employ a postdoctoral fellow or so as the ARC DP funding incomes are in average ~ $300K for 3 years.

Therefore I decided to manually mine and count the number of successful DPs by lead CIs from the funded application list. There is a limitation to this. Sadly, I don’t have access to the outcome statistics for unfunded projects and I doubt very much ARC would release it.

Number of DP proposal awarded per Australian Academic Level: Total (blue bars), male (red bars) and female (green bars)

The results show firstly a distortion of the awarded DP towards level E academics (professors) as lead CI (60%) and roughly same proportion of awarded DP between Level D (associate professors) and Level B/C (postodctoral fellows and senior researchers). Secondly the number of awarded DP with females as a lead CI is dramatically low at all academic levels (respectively, Level B/C 30%, Level D 21% and Level E 15% but overall Level B/C 6%, Level D 3.5% and Level E 9% !!!!).

These statistics are quite worrying. The funding outcome is highly skewed towards Level E academics and in fact really few young researchers got their projects funded as a lead CI. Of note, I found 4 DPs awarded to emeritus professors as primary investigators (PI) and only senior investigators (level E) were awareded for Astronomy !!! Sadly, female academics are really left out as lead CI from this DP scheme. This indicates the lack of funding for junior academics and these are really worrying statistics for the future of Australian science.

Two recent pieces described quite well the NHMRC grant review process (Merlin Crossley in the conversation https://theconversation.com/the-ins-and-outs-of-research-grant-funding-committees-49900) as well as the ARC one (Michael Crichton https://www.science.org.au/emcr-pathways-issue-5/behind-closed-doors-observing-arc-selection-meeting). Both pieces mentioned that having a good track record and good publications helps the application to cross the line. This indicates and this is not a real surprise that well established researchers as well as senior academics are favored over junior researchers in the NHMRC or the ARC project grant review process.

So what to do next?

Before detailling some thoughts here, I would strongly recommend to read Adam Nicolich’s excellent conclusion on the official outcome statistics and his solutions to fix the ARC (https://pacificsoutheast.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/fixing-arc-discovery-projects/). I agree with his view and I don’t think I need to repeat what is already written. Although, I would like to make some additional points.

Firstly, we really need to cap the number of awarded applications per researchers. For instance for the NHMRC, we could cap the number of project grants from 6 to 4 or do not allowed any DP from ARC centre for Excellence CIs. We also should cap the age (academic age) for senior academics to apply for funding (senior fellowships, program grants as well as project grants). We have to give the opportunity to junior academics to establish their own research program to allowed research breakthrough to occur. Secondly, as James Murphy (@pseudokinase) proposed on twitter, senior academics should step down in their role as a lead CI and mentor junior academics to the first grant funding success. This is an essential duty from senior academics in their legacy to make a fantastic contribution to facilitate the career development of a junior academic. Thirdly, we really have to give more opportunities to female academic to shine and lead project grants.

Grant proposals should be primarily ranked based on the innovative idea, rather heavily relies on the track record of the lead investigator for feasibility. More weight in a grant evaluation for the research plan or project quality and innovation is a start, but maybe another way would be for instance to better mix junior and senior academics in a grant review panel.

Another essential point is universities and institutes should really take their part of responsibility in organising and ensuring a viable long term strategy for their junior faculties to foster long term research programs. While for a DECRA or a Future Fellowship the university has to promise to the ARC a long term commitment for an applicant, this is rarely the case. How many times I’ve seen a Future Fellow or leaving the University for the lack of long term commitment and not getting offered a tenure position. For a NHMRC fellowship, universities don’t have to promise any tenure or so to the fellowship applicant. We end up having many NHRMC fellows, especially ECRs, running out of funds after expiration of their fellowships and leaving science.

Finally, as Brian Schmidt mentioned recently in an interview (http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/older-academics-need-to-make-room-for-young-researchers-at-the-money-trough-20151008-gk43b9.html) we should redirect the competitive funding to junior academics to nurture talent and to produce the next generation of science leaders.