Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023 – Second Reading

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Education) (09:31): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Australia accounts for only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, but we do three per cent of global research.

We make an outsized contribution to global knowledge—about 10 times what you’d expect looking at our population alone.

Pound for pound we’re one of the most important contributors to global knowledge and innovation.

Australian research has literally changed the world.

And a key part of that is the work done by the Australian Research Council.

The ARC plays a unique role in this country.

It supports basic and applied research across all disciplines except medical research.

No other agency does this.

And it does this to the tune of more than $895 million in research grants this financial year.

That funding supports more than 5,900 new and ongoing grants.

The ARC doesn’t just fund research. It acts as an important safeguard on research integrity. It also provides advice and support to the Australian government on research matters.

And it has a proven track record in nurturing and producing the kind of research and results that keep Australia at the cutting edge of innovation.

And that has an economic benefit too.

According to work done by ACIL Allen, every dollar of National Competitive Grants Program funding administered by the ARC generates more than three dollars of economic output.

That’s a return on investment you don’t see in many places.

And that return not only supports our economy.

It also enhances our reputation internationally as thinkers and doers, and leaders in research.

Over the last 22 years the ARC has supported the work of brilliant Australians who have repaid that government investment with some extraordinary achievements.

Achievements like bringing the internet to Australia, getting quantum computing off the ground, driving the uptake of solar panels on rooftops here and overseas, and helping the world respond to COVID-19.

But in those 22 years, neither the ARC nor the legislation that underpins it had been comprehensively reviewed.

And that legislation hasn’t kept up with the times.

In 2001, when the ARC was established the hottest new consumer technology was the Apple iPod.

Facebook and YouTube didn’t exist.

The mapping of the human genome was still in the ‘working draft’ phase.

For most people connection to the world wide web started with unplugging your landline and waiting for that weird cacophony of connection sounds.

And we only had four Star Wars movies.

That’s how long it’s been.

That’s how much we’ve changed.

That’s two decades spent without lifting the hood on the ARC legislation to see what’s working and what we might do better, and what we need to do to protect the independence of our research sector.

The fact is in recent times the ARC has been bedevilled by political interference and ministerial delays.

At least four of my predecessors have interfered on at least six occasions during the former government to upend the independent peer review process.

Interference and delays make it harder for universities to recruit and retain staff, and it damages our international reputation.

That’s not good for our universities, and it’s not good for business either who want to work with our universities.

And that’s why last year I appointed Professor Margaret Sheil AO, Professor Susan Dodds and Professor Mark Hutchinson to conduct the first comprehensive review of the ARC Act.

Their terms of reference were broad.

I wanted the review team to have a really close look at this and tell us what needs to be done to make the ARC fit for today’s research environment and prepare it for tomorrow’s.

To consult widely.

To speak to people across the research ecosystem. Researchers. University and other higher education providers. Traditional knowledge owners. Research organisations here and overseas. Industry groups. Peak Bodies. And government.

This they did and I want to sincerely thank them for that work here today. In April I received the review team’s report.

They concluded that we need to strengthen the ARC’s governance arrangements.

To bolster its independence.

To get the politics out of it.

To end the days of ministers vetoing things they didn’t like the title of.

Professor Sheil and the review team made 10 recommendations and in August I announced that the government agreed or agreed in principle to all of them.

I have already requested the ARC to commission work to implement three of them.

They are: (1) that we help universities attract and retain talented academics through meaningful fellowships and promoting academic careers in research; (2) that we advance the support for Indigenous Australian academics through better consultation and additional fellowships; (3) that we encourage more consultation between the ARC and stakeholders in the academic and research community.

That work is already underway.

A fourth recommendation concerning the evaluation of excellence, impact and research capacity within Australian universities is being considered as part of the Australian Universities Accord.

The remaining six recommendations require legislative amendments and they are addressed in this bill which amends the ARC Act.

The bill amends the objects of the act so that they clearly define the important role and place of the ARC in supporting Australia’s research community.

The bill also establishes an ARC Board as the accountable authority of the ARC. This was recommended by the review team to strengthen the independence and integrity of the ARC.

The board will be appointed by the minister and the bill includes eligibility requirements to ensure that members are appropriately qualified, with the majority of members to have substantial experience or expertise in one or more fields of research, or in the management of research.

The board will also include a First Nations person, and a regional, rural and remote representative, and be supported by an ongoing ARC Advisory Committee with expertise across research, industry and governance.

The board will appoint the ARC’s chief executive officer, and approve the appointment of members to board committees, including the College of Experts.

Importantly, the board will approve research grants under the National Competitive Grants Program.

This is one of the critical changes recommended by the review. Under the existing act, these decisions are made by the minister.

Every decision. On thousands of grants.

Over time this has allowed for political interference to seep into what should be an independent, peer reviewed process aimed at expanding our nation’s knowledge base.

The establishment of the board as the approving body will get the politics out of this.

It re-establishes peer review as the driving principle in grant approvals.

Peer review is the accepted world standard for achieving quality in research grant outcomes. International collaboration and credibility also rely on having access to resources on a merit basis.

The reforms in this bill will send a strong signal that the government supports research selection processes that are based on research excellence and sound due diligence.

Some important powers are retained by the minister in the bill.

The minister will be responsible for setting the funding rules to be followed by the board in making grant decisions. These funding rules will be a disallowable legislative instrument.

This will safeguard against future ministers attempting to use the ARC as a political plaything without the oversight of the parliament.

The minister will also retain powers to approve funding for nationally significant investments.

This is not about individual research grants, but investing in projects which can drive research, infrastructure, training and collaboration. The machinery and the engine rooms of research.

Projects like the ARC Centres for Excellence, Industrial Transformation Training Centres, and Industrial Transformation Research Hubs. Other designated research programs may be specified by the minister through a disallowable legislative instrument.

The minister will also have the power to direct the board not to approve a grant or to terminate funding for a grant and where appropriate require repayment, based on national security grounds.

When that happens, the minister must notify the parliament and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The ARC’s annual report will specify the number of times that these powers have been exercised.

Finally, the bill replaces the special appropriation arrangements for the ARC’s administered funding with annual appropriation arrangements, providing funding visibility for the sector.

Can I again thank Professors Sheil, Hutchinson and Dodds for the mountain of work they did in conducting this review, and can I thank Dr John Byron and Dr Natalie Jones-Jayasinghe for their stellar work in supporting them.

Their collective commitment to this task, their wisdom and their deep expertise have been invaluable.

Can I also thank the ARC CEO Judi Zielke and her team for the important work they have done and the work they are doing now with my department to implement the review’s recommendations.

As a nation we are rightly proud of our reputation in research, and the measures in this bill will help support the discoveries and innovations of the future.

They will modernise the ARC, strengthen it and build more trust in it so it can continue to spur innovation and catalyse productivity in the years ahead.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.