Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

View from the Top

By Aidan Byrne

The new head of the ARC looks ahead at changes to funding programs and an open access regime.

Since I started at the Australian Research Council (ARC) in July 2012, I have been fortunate to be given an integrated view of the research sector, and have spoken with a very large number of those that actively take part in it, each with their own view of where things are going and how the sector could be improved. It is exciting to witness such a volume of good ideas and enthusiasm for a future that we are building together.

Although the ARC administers only about 9% of the total government spend on research and development, the effect in the sector is significant. As always each year presents new challenges. This year will see the last of the scheduled rounds of the Future Fellowships program, which completes its 5-year term in 2013. This year will also see a new Centres of Excellence round, which is a major investment for us, and will launch a new fleet of intensive research centres that will be active for years to come.

ARC Centres of Excellence are at the cutting edge of their fields internationally and have brought significant benefits for research capability and innovation in Australia. Their many achievements have included major breakthroughs in quantum computing; the development of new methods of hydrogen production to make industries more environmentally sustainable; and advances in knowledge and protection of biodiversity.

With so many outstanding research teams working on crucial research across the country, it will be exciting to oversee the selection process for new ARC Centres of Excellence this year. I expect that we will open for expressions of interest in March.

I am proud that our Excellence in Research for Australia 2012 National Report has revealed the strength of our university research sector. The report also shows the positive effect of the 18% increase in Federal funding for competitive grants – over $3.75 billion in the ERA 2012 reference period (2008–10 for income) and over $3.18 billion in the ERA 2010 reference period (2006–08).

Importantly, the 2012 evaluation shows that this investment is predominantly, and increasingly, in areas that are rated world class or better, and the overall standard of the ratings is improving. These areas of world-beating activity exist throughout the university sector. They are not just the prerogative of the Group of Eight leading universities – the field as a whole is strong.

Notwithstanding this evidence, the battle for future research funding is being fought right now on the airwaves and in the papers and blogs whenever the question is raised about the value of science and research to our society. The community needs to be continually reminded of the phenomenal benefits that have come from research (whether basic, embedded with industry, or conducted as part of a fellowship program) or there will be doubts over the merits of research funding. It is important that Australians stay attuned to the value of science and innovation.

One of the ways we are ensuring that the huge amount of innovation and knowledge creation that is taking place in our universities and research centres gets the recognition it deserves is by mandating that the results of ARC funded research are made available on an open access repository, beginning with grants awarded in 2013. This one step improves the profile of Australian research by helping to share the benefits and knowledge that flow from our investment within the community.

The ARC supports the very best ideas that the sector can bring to us, from researchers who are making their first strides in a new field or putting the capstone on a lifetime of achievement. I can see that all our programs make a difference to the research community, and by tailoring these to the challenges of the future we can help to ensure that we are leading the world in innovative ideas.

Before assuming his current role, Professor Byrne was Dean of Science at the Australian National University and Director of the ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.