Professor Aidan Byrne, CEO, Australian Research Council
As the primary source of advice to the Australian Government on investment in research, the ARC’s responsibility is as considerable as it is varied. We speak exclusively to the Council’s recently appointed CEO on the task of fostering high-quality research, partnerships and ethics
Since we interviewed the Australian Research Council (ARC) last year how have your objectives changed or intensified?
The ARC plays a key role in helping improve the lives of Australians and people across the globe. To achieve this, we provide advice to the Australian Government on research matters, administer $879 million of the Government’s investment in high-quality research and manage the internationally-recognised Excellence in Research for Australia research evaluation exercise. I am proud to say, despite a rather small operating budget, we do this well.
As new CEO, I stand by the ARC mission to deliver policy and programmes that advance Australian research and innovation globally and benefit the community. I also recognise, however, that we can continuously improve our support of Australian research and the awareness of the Australian public who fund much of this research.
I recently made it clear that I am considering changes to the ARC policy on the dissemination of research findings. I am currently liaising with a range of stakeholders and considering factors such as the need to align changes with policies across Australia’s major higher education funding agencies. Feedback from the Australian higher education sector has been positive and I will be making a resolution on this issue quickly to ensure clarity for the sector.
The ARC has a strong record of funding health-related research, ranging from blue-sky research to more applied research. Can you highlight some recent examples of the types of health research the ARC is supporting?
Through our $879 million National Competitive Grants Program, we support the highest-quality fundamental and applied research and research training through national competition across all disciplines, with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry. Specifically, we fund research that addresses our National Research Priorities (NRP), as identified by the Australian Government. The NRP include: Environmentally Sustainable Australia; Promoting and Maintaining Good Health; Frontier Technologies for Building and Transforming Australian Industries; and Safeguarding Australia.
Approximately 20 per cent of our grants are awarded for research projects addressing the priority of Promoting and Maintaining Good Health, and in our last round of ARC Centres of Excellence (starting in 2011), three out of 13 new Centres identified their research as being within the priority area of Promoting and Maintaining Good Health.
In 2009, in response to Australia’s 2020 Summit, we funded a new collaborative research initiative to develop a functional bionic eye. Two outstanding research teams are sharing $50 million in funding to develop a bionic eye under the Research in Bionic Vision Science Special Research Initiative.
Moreover, a research team led by Monash University and in partnership with Alfred Health is receiving $8 million in support, and a group led by the University of Melbourne has been awarded $42 million. This team includes researchers from the Universities of Melbourne, New South Wales, Western Sydney and The Australian National University. Other partners include the National ICT Australia, the Bionic Ear Institution and the Centre for Eye Research Australia.
In 2011, the Australian Government provided funding for Stem Cells Australia, a new collaborative research initiative in stem cell science. To what extent is this programme now up and running? With what strategy will the scheme deliver fundamental scientific breakthroughs?
The $21 million ARC-funded Stem Cells Australia research initiative was launched in November 2011 and is led by internationally-renowned stem cell researcher Professor Martin Pera from the University of Melbourne. Stem Cells Australia is a unique collaboration of Australia’s leading experts in bioengineering, nanotechnology, stem cell biology, advanced molecular analysis and clinical research from eight universities and research organisations (University of Melbourne, Monash University, University of Queensland, University of New South Wales, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Florey Neuroscience Institutes).
Through Stem Cells Australia, researchers are undertaking world-class stem cell research and leading public debate, discussion and research into the important ethical, legal and societal issues associated with stem cell science. The achievements of Stem Cells Australia so far include the discovery of a novel marker that plays an important role in our understanding of how cancer develops in the liver, pancreas and oesophagus.
Research spans the divide between countries, race and religion. What remains to be done to iron out any disparities in areas such as gender?
ARC statistics show women compete well with men for ARC funding when they apply. In fact, across ARC funding schemes, success rates for women are generally comparable to – and sometimes higher – than success rates for men.
For the 2012 Australian Laureate Fellowships which were announced in July, the success rate for women was around 18 per cent, compared to around 15 per cent for men. Additionally, in the 2012 Future Fellowships, which were also announced in July, the success rate for women was around 37 per cent, compared to 33 per cent for men. These last two announcements alone prove that our female researchers are extremely competitive.
However, there is a perception in Australia that the Government does not understand that childbirth and caring responsibilities mean some women may come in and out of the workforce. This is untrue. The ARC understands that for many women, career breaks are a part of life. In recent years we have made many positive changes that we are hoping will encourage more women to apply for our funds. This is only the beginning; we are continuing to examine our schemes and the information provided to us by applicants so that further improvements to encourage women applicants may be made.
Since last year, we have improved the research funding opportunities available to female researchers through the introduction of new assessment criteria – Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE). This makes it easier for women to demonstrate their research achievements, despite any breaks in career. It also encourages women at all levels of research – be it early, mid or elite – to start and continue their careers. The assessment criteria is in place across all ARC schemes.
We have also introduced new prestigious fellowships specifically for women – the Georgina Sweet and Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellowships. These are named after prominent women researchers and are awarded to women who are research leaders. In addition to helping elite female researchers with their projects, the female-only fellowships include funding support for the fellows to mentor our next generation of female research leaders and promote opportunities for women in research. Our inaugural year of these fellowships in 2011 saw about 90 per cent of women Australian Laureate Fellowship applicants apply for the Georgina Sweet and Kathleen Fitzpatrick Fellowships. This year, about 82 per cent of women Laureate applicants applied for these prestigious named awards.
The changes we have made to our funding schemes are important first steps to encourage our young women to start a research career and help them to stay within the research workforce and to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. We need female and male research leaders around the country, however, to advocate this support for our female researchers and encourage the women in their lives to apply for research funding. The success rates for women across our funding schemes are proof alone that their application could well lead to funding that will support their career, and which may produce research outcomes that will improve the lives of all Australians.
From a research perspective, the world is increasingly connected. How can links with Europe be further strengthened to push innovation?
ARC-funded researchers have a strong record of collaboration with Europe. In 2011, Europe accounted for the highest percentage (46 per cent) of total instances of international collaboration by continent on ARC-funded projects. This is compared to 31 per cent (Americas), 18 per cent (Asia), and 4 per cent (Oceania). Five EU Member States (UK, Germany, France, The Netherlands and Italy) feature in the top 10 countries with which ARC-funded projects indicated an intention to collaborate from 2008-12. Our prestigious ARC Centres of Excellence also have a strong record of international collaboration. For our 2011 cohort of centres, 12 out of 13 have partner organisations in Europe.
ARC funding also supports Australian access to a number of international research facilities including CERN. In March 2008 Australia became an Associate Member of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL – www.embl.org). As EMBL’s first Associate Member, Australian life scientists have access to state-of-the-art core facilities, technologies, and expertise in Europe. Associate Membership opened new opportunities for Australian scientists to forge collaborations with European research networks and institutions and to access European funding sources.
The ARC and the University of Sydney are supporting Australia’s first recipient of an EMBL Group Leader position, Dr Marcus Heisler. This position will give him the opportunity to spend five years at EMBL Heidelberg, and an additional four years at The University of Sydney. The ARC is providing a total of $2.5 million covering the five year period from 2009-13.
Like much of Europe and North America, Australia has an ageing population. Providing long-term healthcare for this demographic is a huge concern. How is the ARC hoping to surmount this global issue through research?
The National Research Priority area ‘Promoting and Maintaining Good Health’ has four associated priority goals. Of the total funding allocated to research projects falling within this NRP, approximately half was dedicated to projects nominated as being relevant to ‘Ageing well, ageing productively’.
Moreover, we have an ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research. The Centre is receiving funding of $12.7 million over seven years. The Centre is combining in-house expertise with leading researchers globally in initiatives to generate new outcome-oriented approaches to studying the population ageing process and its implications. At the time of announcement, the Centre identified a number of UK universities as collaborating organisations, including City University, University of Nottingham, University of Newcastle and University of Manchester.