What’s a FoR?

Rank and file (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Rank and file (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The terrain of research grant application is littered with acronyms, new and defunct. There’s a level of knowingness about many of them, and how they are used.

For example, the Australian Research Council is always called the ARC. Not “arc” as a word, but by the letters “A.R.C.”. Mutual confusion can reign if two people meet who don’t speak this same language.

Within research development and grantsmanship, one of the elements held up as a defining characteristic for your application and its fate is the FoR code (pronounced as the letters, not as a word). The FoR, or “Field of Research” codes, came about as part of a joint Australian/New Zealand exercise to consistently categorise research and development (R&D) in our nations:

The conceptual framework adopted for the development of the FOR uses R&D activities according to the field in which research is undertaken and based on the processes and techniques used in the R&D. [my emphasis; ABS website]

OK, great, but what is a FoR actually for?

It’s probably useful to tell you about the ways that various organisations use FoR codes, then talk about what some of the consequences of these uses can be. Apologies for being Oz-centric in this post.

The governments, which came up with them in the first place, use the codes to work out where momentum and activity is happening in certain fields on a national level. It captures the R&D being done in all sectors of Australia/New Zealand, not just universities. For example, using the suite of Standard Classification codes (FoR and its friends, SEO and TOA), might show that most of the Applied Research (TOA – “Type of Activity”) being done in Heritage (SEO – “Socio-economic Objective”) is carried out by those in the FoR code of ‘Curatorial and related studies’.

The ARC uses them as part of all its grant schemes, and a foundational element of its research excellence measures (ARC’s official Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) page; and the National Tertiary Education Union’s Watch page about ERA). A certain number or level of outputs is indicative of an ‘active’ Field of Research (e.g. you need at least 50 outputs in X code before you can be in the game for that code’s ranking in ERA).

If you don’t make that basic level of output, your institution is considered not to have enough momentum in that area to warrant ERA ranking.

Universities and other research organisations use these codes to track areas of research activity (especially in grant submissions and publications). Increasingly, this tracking is also to accommodate and strategise for ERA (from which the ARC indicated that institutional funding or postgraduate places may be determined).

Institutions’ ERA rankings are being bandied about commonly in ARC applications, particularly in the scheme sections of “Research Environment” or “Organisation Statement”. Ostensibly, this is not the way the ERA rankings are meant to be used but, really, give people a game, and they will play it.

Within institutions, FoR codes can also indicate when areas are thriving, perhaps enough to establish a new research centre or make a bid within a larger consortium-type scheme (e.g. the ARC’s Centres of Excellence or the new Industrial Transformation Programs).

Faculties/Schools/Departments have used FoR codes since 2008 (when they were finalised in their current form) to log their publications and academics’ research activities.

With the flow-on effects of strategising better ERA rankings, your Faculty/School/Department may use them as indicative of the journals their researchers should be publishing in. This can lead to some skewed and limited thinking, and increasing conservatism in research (see the NTEU’s report on ERA for examples of the ways the ERA process has been experienced by staff, and the changes in some university policies).

What is often deemed ‘commonsense’ in ERA-era Australia could also be characterised as an erosion of the intellectual freedom of academics.

While the drive to publish within certain FoRs may come from within your current department or school, it pays to remember that you may not always be in that particular place. View your track-record with critical, aspirational eyes – where would you like to be? What kind of department values the kind of work you do?


A Short Acronymic Guide to Australian Grants-ville:  

  • ARC = Australian Research Council – a major Australian government granting body.
  • ERA = Excellence in Research for Australia – Australia’s method for measuring research excellence.
  • FoR = Field of Research – a code to indicate the topic of any given research project.
  • R&D = Research and Development.
  • SEO = Socio-economic Objective – a code to indicate what sector of society might use your research, such as defence, energy, health, law, etc.
  • ToA = Type of Activity – a code to indicate whether research is pure, strategic, applied, or experimental.


  1. And the short answer (for researchers) is: The folks in your research office know this. Don’t panic. Talk to them. They really can help.

    Question: do program officers also use FoR and so on as a way to select peer reviewers?

    When I help researchers with applications here in Canada, I remind them that a lot of the things on the form (anything with a box, drop down, or code) is not really used by the peer reviewers themselves but is used for statistical reporting by the agency (as you note) and by the program officers to search for suitable reviewers, assign the file to a suitable committee member. I get them to think of the kinds of people they think would make good reviewers of their proposal and how those people would define themselves in these terms. In other words, to think of how their project fits into a field and what others in that field call the field. This is particularly important for those who like to think of themselves as challenging the boundaries of their field.


    • Thanks for your comment, Jo. And, yes, asking the folks in your research office often nets you more information than you expect. There are certain strategic things that staff there can tell you that may not appear in formal documentation around processes. They can also save you a lot of time and angst!

      Answer to your question: Yes, FoR codes are used as one of the elements used for finding grant application or article reviewers (along with keywords). Strategising FoR codes and keywords to get your application in front of the right reviewer is, as you say, a very important step.

      Grant applications that fall between formal panels of experts (e.g. the work is interdisciplinary and sits between social sciences and humanities) can be difficult to assess. But this is the area in which a lot of the innovative work goes on, and there are – anecdotally – increasing numbers of applications that cross over between discipline panels.


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