Descending on Adelaide (ARMS 2013)

ARMS 2013 - AdelaideIf you happened to be travelling on flights to Adelaide over 10-13 September this year, you may have overheard some juicy academic gossip and, hopefully, many scandalous declarations about the higher education sector in Australia and elsewhere.

You may well have been sitting near a posse of professional research staff.

The conference we were flying to was ARMS 2013, the peak meet-up for people of our persuasion.

ARMS (Australasian Research Management Society) is the “professional society for specialists in management and administration of research”, and may need to change its title slightly given the organisation now has a Singapore chapter. Or this may be the beginning of a more pronounced ‘Asian’ in the ‘AustralAsian’ (given tantalising comments by former ARMS President, Ren Yi [@melbcollege], on Twitter about possible links with China – see below)?

I didn’t attend the pre-conference workshops this year, and arrived in Radelaide in time for the welcome reception on the evening of 11 September.

The reception was held in the same venue as the rest of the conference: the Adelaide Convention Centre. As anyone who has floated around convention centres knows, these spaces are often vast, echoing, and – really – socially sterile. Getting into the exhibition hall (where the reception was held), I warmed the space up with meeting colleagues, buddies from last year, and the fabulous opportunity to hang with an old friend who was ‘out-of-context’ at a research management conference.

The conference was very well organised (kudos to the conference committee), and afforded many opportunities to learn about the current state of our professional sector, research policy, and funding bodies in Australia and internationally.

The panels that got me thinking the most were:

1. Research impact:

Panel featured Prof. Warwick Anderson, CEO, NHMRC; Prof. Aidan Byrne, CEO Australian Research Council; Mr Roy Chamberlain, Deputy Director, Energy Flagship, CSIRO; Dr Rob Porteous, DIICCSRTE; Ms Vicki Thomson, Executive Director, ATN.

Despite the fact that quite a few members of the panel had a necessary case of “change-of-government-itis” (typified by hesitancy/uncertainty about future and new priorities or changed statuses…), the panel provided an active and wide-ranging discussion on the issues for assessing research impact. These focused for much of the time on exactly how ‘impact’ would be defined and valued. The ‘how’ of measuring, according to Byrne, is relatively easy; it’s the ‘what’ that presents the biggest challenge.

Thomson flagged that impact is something that the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) has been pushing for. Indeed, the ATN and Group of Eight (Go8) collaborated on a trial impact measurement exercise in 2012.

The panel ended with Porteous’ words of wisdom:

2. International perspectives:

Panel features Ms Tricia Huang, Director, Biomedical Research Council, A*STAR (SNG); Dr Elliott Kulakowski CEO, SRA International; Dr Stephen Lorimer, MBIE (NZ); Prof. Mark Wainwright, Intersect (AU)

I really enjoyed hearing about varying research climates around the world, for better or worse. Having read about ‘sequestration’ through links from the Research Whisperer twitterstream, it was interesting – if ultimately very depressing – to hear about its consequences directly from Kulakowski. I know I bang on about this, but eroding a research system sets things back far beyond the actual years of diminished funding. Given what’s happening in the US on the academic employment and research fronts, recovery and growth will be a long, funding-hungry task.

In contrast, Huang painted an extremely positive picture of STEM funding in Singapore: an eye-popping $16.1 billion (Singapore dollars) investment, which is 1% of the nation’s GDP.

One of the questions from the floor at the end of session raised the issue of how to build sustained and meaningful relationships with international partner institutions (rather than just signing sheaf after sheaf of MOUs). The example given was the current rush to cultivate Chinese universities as connections and partners, but accompanying these with ‘one-way’ traffic (Australian researchers going to China, rather than two-way academic exchange) . While no real answers were offered, @grantranking (IRU) commented that there didn’t need to be a two-way relationship as long as all parties’ expectations were clear and met. Wainwright suggested a ‘DVC International Research’, or similar.


Aside from the weighty plenary panels, there were active bands of concurrent sessions running through each conference day. I particularly enjoyed:

  • Paul Taylor’s (UniMelb) presentation on international academic misconduct, wherein he coined the neologsim “outpact” (output / impact) – make sure you use it in a sentence today, folks!
  • Katie Jones’ (UniTec) talk on creating parameters and consistency in research metrics. Her talk brought home the difficulty of how difficult is to activate research inactive staff, or those who’ve – to date – had limited opportunity to build a research profile.
  • Lyn McBriarty (UNewcastle) on growing international collaborations. They are mapping institutional research momentum across range of areas to see likely avenues for future international research resourcing and support.
  • Denise Clark (UMaryland, USA) talking about the professional development opportunities for research administrators and managers at her institution, and specifically within her unit.

On the last day of the conference, we managed to get together for a brief ‘tweet-up’, and here’s evidence that we all exist in warm-form:

Tweet-up crew: 1) @KTAustralia (Tamika Heiden); 2)  @lapsedscientist (A.J. Woodhouse)
Tweet-up crew: 1. Tamika Heiden (@KTAustralia); 2. Damian Davini (@Damian_InfoEd); 3. Jane Crier (@skippy_jc); 4. Moira Clay (@lozscienziato); 5. Alex Burns (@alexburns); 6. Tseen Khoo (@tseenster / @researchwhisper); 7. Michelle Duryea (@mishduryea); 8. Dan Barr (@drdanbarr / @ARMSoa); 9. A.J. Woodhouse (@lapsedscientist); 10. Grant Kennett (@grantranking); 11. Kerstin Fritsches (@postdoctraining)

The conference ended with Dr Jason Fox (@drjasonfox) presenting his cartoons, created and compiled during the conference. His insight was a hit with the delegates, and Fox’s mixing of motivation theory and the sessions’ key points were a witty, satisfying way to conclude a packed series of days.

Next year, ARMS 2014 will be in Canberra – I’ll be expecting wall-to-wall politicians…or maybe not. And, if Moira Clay (@loscienziato) is to be believed, ARMS 2015 will be in Singapore in 2015!

Last year’s conference report can be found here: ARMS 2012 (Gold Coast, Qld).


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