Less cash for more PhDs

Article from: The Australian
Bernard Lane | December 03, 2008

THE flagship grant program of the Australian Research Council should radically be redesigned, with emphasis on a large number of low-cost grants to train PhD students, a group of scientists has urged.

Biochemist Terry Spithill said dividing the Discovery program into a smaller number of big-ticket innovation grants and a larger number of graduate training grants could lift the success rate from its present “disastrous” level of 20 per cent to 33 per cent.”

A lot of people are getting to the point where they’re not bothering to apply (for Discovery grants),” Professor Spithill, from Charles Sturt University, told the HES.

He said the proposed redesign would reduce the money available for big, risky projects but would restore morale, keep researchers from dropping out of the system and build intellectual capital for the future.

He and five colleagues from the CSU school of animal and veterinary sciences – Peter Chenoweth, Peter Davie, Raf Friere, David Jenkins and Shane Raidal – urge the reform in a letter to the ARC. It was inspired by a Canadian program that funds a high proportion of applicants.

The CSU group draws a link between the low success rate for Discovery applications in biological sciences and a 14 per cent success rate for postdoctoral fellowships.

“The message to the majority of current and budding scientists is clear: seek your career elsewhere because your ideas are not deemed fundable in Australia,” their letter says.

In the proposed graduate training stream, money would be doled out in bundles of $40,000, representing $26,000 for a PhD student stipend and $14,000 in operating costs. Applicants could seek one, two or three bundles.

“Since the bundle is about 33 per cent of a typical Discovery grant ($113,781 per year in the 2008 round), the ARC would be able to fund a higher percentage of applications where the applicant is only seeking funds for graduate training,” the letter says. Professor Spithill calculates a 33per cent success rate for a reformed Discovery program based on 845 innovation grants (set at the 2008 average of $341,344 per grant over three years) and 508 graduate training grants ($120,420 over three years). This draws on not only existing ARC funds but also money promised for new Australian Postgraduate Awards.

ARC chief executive Margaret Sheil was sceptical about the Canadian-inspired proposal. “It’s really hard to take a bit of one jurisdiction and translate it into another one without looking at the whole picture of how they fund research,” she said.

However, she said two elements of the CSU proposal – bundling for easier budgeting and research training – were present in the new Australian Laureate Fellowships program.

She was unsure whether there would be enough PhDs in the system for the research training expansion suggested by the CSU group.

On Monday a parliamentary inquiry into research capacity recommended the ARC be given enough money to ensure a success rate of at least 40 per cent. “Many submissions also suggested that the success rate of applications for competitive funding is too low, excluding young PhD graduates from a research career,” says the report from the House of Representatives standing committee on industry, science and innovation.

Bradley Smith from the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies said the system needed a greater range of grant types to manage risks. This could include big, long-term program grants; grants for projects deemed too risky by other funding programs; and short, low-cost grants essentially for developing human capital.