Go to top of page

1.1 From the Chief Executive Officer

Introduction

Professor Sue Thomas, ARC CEO
Professor Sue Thomas, ARC CEO
As the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC), I am pleased to present the ARC Annual Report 2019–20.

At the ARC we take great pride in our people and culture which shape who we are and how we work. Like all Australian businesses and government agencies, the COVID-19 disruptions tested our business continuity plans and in particular our capacity to relocate staff to home-based working arrangements and to deliver many of our functions online in a new or different way. This was critical to enabling the vital business and processes of the ARC to continue.

I am very pleased to report that as an agency we have demonstrated that the ARC is agile and adaptable. This is largely due to robust business systems and agency investment in autonomous staff, and would of course not have been possible without the ongoing support and adaptability of the university sector—including the assessor community for the continuation of the peer review processes that will ensure delivery of funding outcomes to support Australian research in the recovery period and beyond.

2020 is an important year for the ARC as it celebrates 55 years of competitive grants delivery to the research sector. The agency was established in May 1965 and was known as the Australian Research Grants Committee. It has existed in its current legislated form as the ARC since 2001. The agency has seen many changes over this time and continues to play a significant role in delivering economic, environmental, social, health and/or cultural research benefits for all Australians.

Throughout the year, the ARC has contributed to the growth of knowledge and innovation for the benefit of the Australian community. We continued to fund the highest quality research through the National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP), a core component of the Australian Government’s investment in research and innovation. We analysed and disseminated data from Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and the Engagement and Impact (EI) assessment, to provide valuable insights to Government, universities and other stakeholders, and commenced a review of both programs. We worked with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and partner agencies to deliver a revised Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC), which will help to provide more current and detailed research data into the future. We provided timely, impartial and expert research policy advice, and actively sought opportunities to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our processes.

The Annual Report is a key opportunity for the ARC to document the outcomes it has achieved, and to reflect on opportunities for future growth.

Funding the highest quality research

The ARC remains committed to funding nationally and internationally competitive research. In 2019–20 the NCGP supported 1,200 new research projects, involving 2,916 researchers.

The ARC recognises the importance of ensuring the funding we administer is returned to the community through benefits to Australia. The value of the NCGP reflects not only the benefits delivered through individual research projects, but also the underlying support it provides to the national research and innovation system. Our research grants support researchers at all career stages, and provide research training and mentoring opportunities.

Our schemes also invest in the infrastructure, equipment and facilities underpinning Australia’s international research competitiveness, and encourage university researchers to productively partner with commercial, government, community and international stakeholders.

Assessing the quality, engagement and impact of research

With the completion of four rounds of ERA, the ARC now holds detailed longitudinal data on the Australian university research sector spanning fourteen years. This increasingly rich dataset enables the ARC to provide in-depth and comprehensive information about the state of Australian university research. In October 2019, the ARC released Gender and the Research Workforce: Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) 2018, an in-depth analysis of ERA data on the topic of gender. The report presents extensive staffing data and insights on gender in the workforce across Australia’s universities and all research disciplines.

In March 2020, the ARC published more of the valuable data and information from the EI 2018 assessment on the ARC data portal. This included narratives on engagement and approaches to impact that received a high rating. Engagement narratives reveal how researchers are engaging with the end-users of their research such as industry, government and community. The approach to impact narratives outlines the ways in which universities are supporting their researchers to produce economic, environmental, social, health and/or cultural and other benefits. These best practice examples demonstrate the pathways Australian universities have taken—from conducting their research to delivering impacts with real world benefits.

The ARC is undertaking a comprehensive review of the ERA and EI programs. The review commenced in 2019–2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the timeframe for the review has been extended. It is expected the review will be completed in 2021. The ARC values the participation of its stakeholders in this review, and has lengthened the timeframe to ensure there is adequate opportunity for consultation.

Providing advice on research matters

The ARC engages in a range of research policy development activities to underpin program delivery. During 2019–20 the ARC:

  • launched the ARC’s Reconciliation Action Plan 2019–2021, the agency’s first at the Innovate level
  • reviewed the ARC Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE) Statement
  • finalised revisions to the ARC Policy Statement Eligibility and Career Interruptions
  • reviewed and updated the ARC Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Policy, www.arc.gov.au > Policies-Strategies > Policy > arc-conflict-interest-and-confidentiality-policy
  • continued to actively monitor and engage with global developments in Open Access
  • partnered in the development and delivery of guides supporting the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research
  • reviewed and updated the ARC Research Workforce Statement.

Building and sustaining a strong organisational capacity

The ARC managed resourcing of $818.3 million in 2019–20, comprising $795.7 million for the administered appropriation and $22.7 million for the departmental appropriation. Of the ARC’s administered expenditure, $789.9 million was used to fund the NCGP. Further information on the financial performance of the agency is provided in Section 3.2.

A key achievement in 2019–20 was the proven capability of the ARC Information and Communication Technology (ICT) systems to quickly support all ARC staff to work from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ARC’s ICT staff and systems responded to a critical change management task that was required in unprecedented timeframes and volume. The ARC has demonstrated that it has the capability to sustain organisational capacity successfully.

Significant issues and developments

The ARC supported the review of the ANZSRC. This work was undertaken in collaboration with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Stats NZ, and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Released in June 2020, the changes ensure our research classifications remain contemporary and align with changes in the research sector. The ARC expects to use the updated classification for the next ERA and EI rounds, and will transition NCGP processes in due course.

The Special Research Initiatives (SRI) scheme provides funding to new and emerging fields of research, and builds capacity in strategically important areas. Over the reporting period, the ARC administered three programs within the SRI scheme with funding commencing in 2020. These were the SRI for Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Remediation Research Program, the SRI for Excellence in Antarctic Science (SRIEAS) and the SRI for Australian Society, History and Culture. The latter, established in 2020, provides up to $12 million in total funding for up to three years. It will be available to support research grants with funding between $20,000 and $100,000 per year for research on Australian and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society, history, culture, literature, art, music, politics and geography.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report No. 5 (2019–20) into the Australian Research Council’s Administration of the National Competitive Grants Program was released on 1 August 2019. The report found that the ARC has mature and effective processes in place to assess grants and manage conflicts of interest. The ANAO also identified instances of good practice at the ARC. In the coming year, the ARC will remain committed to continuous improvement, identifying and implementing further enhancements to the systems and processes, which underpin our programs. The ANAO made three recommendations:

  1. The ARC review the practice of issuing NCGP guidelines annually.
  2. The ARC ensure that its Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the NCGP are reliable and include efficiency.
  3. The ARC ensures that its monitoring and assurance activities, in particular institutional reviews, are risk-based and contribute to the ARC’s assurance that NCGP objectives are being achieved.

The ARC accepted, and has been implementing, the three recommendations of the ANAO’s performance audit. The first has been completed, the second and third are being undertaken and aim to be implemented in 2020–21.

The start of 2020 saw the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ARC displayed the ability to adapt quickly by moving all staff to home-based working to successfully continue its work with minimal impact. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ARC continued to support researchers by progressing NCGP applications and peer review processes, and providing extended submission dates for some grant schemes and reporting dates for active research projects. ARC-funded researchers and fellows have also played a role in adding to the global understanding of the COVID-19 virus.

Outlook for 2020–21

The ARC is looking forward to a busy 2020–21. With the release of ANZSRC 2020, we will support our stakeholders with the transition to, and adoption of, the revised classification.

The ARC will continue to implement the recommendations from the ANAO’s performance audit of the NCGP in 2020–21.

We will continue our comprehensive review of the ERA and EI programs to ensure they continue to meet their purpose of promoting and encouraging research excellence in all disciplines, engagement with research end-users and impactful outcomes beyond the university sector. The views of our stakeholders— those who participate in the evaluations and those who use the data—are diverse and are a key focus of the review. Consultation will enable us to fully understand the strengths and challenges faced by the research sector when participating in, or accessing data from, ERA and EI. The review is also considering the wider context of Australia’s research landscape including relevant Government reports and contemporary issues such as Big Data technology.

Conclusion

The achievements documented within this Annual Report reflect the efforts of a diverse range of national and international stakeholders. It is also important to mention the achievements and contribution of ARC staff who were deployed to Services Australia from 7 April until 29 May this year, to assist in the efforts to combat the economic impacts in Australia of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Likewise, a mention for the efforts of staff who remained at the ARC and enabled work to continue while adapting to working from home and a loss of key team members.

I would also like to acknowledge our former two Executive Directors, Professor Therese Jefferson, who completed her term at the ARC in February 2020, and Professor Joanne Tompkins, who finished in June 2020.

The Australian research sector is a wonderful community to support, with new, incredible stories of innovation and discovery year on year. Our lives and culture are much richer for the work of our research community, and I thank them for what they give back to us all.

I look forward to the year ahead and achieving our 2020–21 goals, which reflect the ARC’s purpose—to grow knowledge and innovation for the benefit of the Australian community.