An ARC Story

Brian Martin

Some personal experiences with the Australian Research Council are recounted to suggest that the system may have serious overload problems.

In November 1992 I was surprised and pleased to learn that my large ARC application for the project "Science and technology for nonviolent struggle" was successful. This was my second attempt with this application. I was surprised because my project was off the beaten track. When only one out of five applications is funded, success is difficult even for top projects in standard areas.

ARC grants are not crucial to my research, nor to my career. Nevertheless, since ARC successes bring kudos and money to universities, I have considered it almost an obligation to apply. In the Arts Faculty at the University of Wollongong, I have one of the best publishing records, with five to seven papers per year and a book every few years. Furthermore, in the fields of my application -- peace research and science and technology studies -- I have one of the country's best records in publishing in the top international refereed journals. Therefore, I might be expected to have a good chance of obtaining a grant and helping both my research and the university's finances.

My grant went for three years, from 1993 to 1995. The project went well: Mary Cawte and I achieved the sort of outcomes I had anticipated in my application. In 1995 I applied for a grant on a related but more specific topic, "Communication technology and nonviolent struggle". The application was "culled" -- rejected without being sent to assessors. Although I knew that luck plays a major role in grants, it was a bit surprising to go from the top 20 percent to the bottom 20 percent.

Representatives from my ARC panel visited the university and I took the opportunity to ask about my failure. Panel member Graham Hugo suggested that one difficulty is that there was no suitable category for my project -- which falls outside the usual categories such as "political science" and "sociology" -- and said he would try to reintroduce the category "other social science". On his suggestion, I wrote a letter to Bill Lovegrove, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Wollongong, suggesting that he encourage the ARC to reintroduce this category.

In 1996 I submitted a revised version of my application. It was culled again. This time I wrote a letter to the ARC asking whether anyone with expertise in the field of my application had been consulted. I received a response pointing out a number of alleged flaws in my application. However, most of these supposed flaws turned out to be mistakes, such as misreading of my reference to "simulation" as "stimulation". The only comment of substance was that I hadn't adequately explained the theoretical basis for my study. As I explained in a reply to the ARC, that was the problem I originally wrote about: "A fully satisfactory explanation for those who are totally unfamiliar with these fields [peace research; science and technology studies] would take more space than available in the application." I amended my application to overcome the misapprehensions apparent in the ARC's letter. Also, I obtained many useful comments from colleagues with experience in the grant system. My 1997 application was good enough, I thought, to deserve being assessed, even if it didn't warrant a grant. However, it was culled yet again. Why? Here are some possible explanations.

Poor standard? Perhaps my application just isn't good enough. But that doesn't easily square with my outstanding publication record and international recognition in the fields of the application. Nor does it square with my previous success.

Increasing standards? The standard of ARC applications has been increasing in recent years. However, it hasn't been increasing at such a pace that what is in the top 20 percent in one year could be in the bottom 20 percent a few years later.

Bad luck? It has been documented that luck -- especially in the choice of assessors -- plays a major role in grant successes. In ten large ARC applications, I have been successful twice, just what would be expected by chance. Perhaps I am having a string of bad luck. But three straight culls is pretty unlikely to occur just by chance.

Bias against innovative projects? It has been claimed by a number of commentators that "safe" projects -- those tackling orthodox or popular topics within well-established fields -- are more likely to be funded. My project is definitely not safe in this respect. But it was funded once, so this explanation doesn't readily stand up.

ARC overload The task facing the ARC is daunting. The number of projects is increasing but resources are not. Furthermore, it is becoming more difficult to find willing assessors. To cut the workload, interviews have been eliminated and small ARCs devolved to universities. But because ARCs are now so crucial to universities (in addition to applicants), the workload continues to mount. Culling one fifth of applications helps reduce the mound of applications. In this context, anything that doesn't fit the standard mould is liable to be rejected.

It is impossible to know for sure why my applications have been so singularly unsuccessful in recent years. My best guess is that ARC overload is a primary factor. My own success or failure is not of special concern, but ARC overload is of wider significance. How is it affecting the morale of researchers and the performance of the research system? Not for the better, I suspect.

Brian Martin
Science and Technology Studies
University of Wollongong, NSW 2522

5 November 1997


Postscript, December 1998

In 1998 I applied again, with much the same application plus, as usual, a few improvements. To my delight, the application was sent to assessors (that is, not culled), received highly favourable comments and scores, and was funded. This experience has been an encouragement to some of my colleagues who normally become discouraged after one or two failures. Most importantly, I am hard at work on the project.