Why should I bother?

Tim PitmanTim Pitman is a Research Development Adviser in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University.

He has worked in research development since 2007. His own research interest is on higher education policy, with a particular focus on increasing the representation of disadvantaged students in universities.

Tim tweet from @timothypitman. His ORCID is 0000-0002-4237-2203

Photo of street art by Christos Barbalis | unsplash.com
Photo of street art by Christos Barbalis | unsplash.com

I’ve been working in research development for a decade now and almost all of that has been focused on the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS).

Much of the ‘art’ of finding funding is universal across disciplines, but there’s also a need for research support that is more targeted towards HASS researchers.

I feel this especially keenly every year when researchers are submitting applications for Australian Research Council (ARC) funding (roughly equivalent to the National Science Foundation in the USA and the national research councils in other countries).

Often, institutional support processes designed to improve the quality of Australian Research Council applications appear to focus on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

This can leave HASS researchers scratching their heads, wondering whether that key observation, or sage bit of advice applies to them as well.

Based on my experience, these three issues below are commonly raised by HASS researchers, and I’ve provided the advice that I give in response.

1. Do the national funding agencies value this sort of research?

In any given year, around one-fifth of Australian Research Council project and fellowship funding goes to HASS research. In 2016, this was approximately A$100 million. Now, more than one-fifth of academics employed in our universities are in HASS disciplines, so there’s a proportional issue to be considered. Nonetheless, the funding is significant in its own right.

When I break this issue down further, usually the real question being asked is, “Will the national research council value my research?”. This angst is often driven by them reading the most recent funding outcomes, generating despair that their specific field of research was not represented.

However, the success rate across the main Australian Research Council schemes averages around 20%. So, in purely statistical terms, a grant application needs to be submitted five times to be successful. And if you look at the Australian Research Council data over a five-year period, you’ll find that pretty well every field of research receives funding (at the Australian and New Zealand Field of Research four-digit level, for those who like to be specific).

At the same time, there’s no point in denying that certain fields of research get small amounts of funding. Visual arts and crafts for one, and tourism for another. But the same is true of certain technical disciplines, such as automotive engineering, forestry sciences, or environmental biotechnology.

Worrying about your specific field also ignores the fact that the Australian Research Council only reports the primary field of research code against grants awarded, which hides the multidisciplinary nature of many projects. HASS researchers in Australia are on a lot of projects, they’re just not visible in the way that the national research council presents the information.

My advice, always, is to forget about being a ‘HASS researcher’ and concentrate on the issue or problem that you want to address. When this can be framed in a way that speaks to the goals of a national funding agency, then it has the potential to be funded.

2. Scientists work in teams. Researchers like us don’t, right?

As one literary scholar once told me, “I don’t need a team to read Shakespeare for me. I need to do it myself”. Point taken. And I, too, get occasionally frustrated when I’m at a university workshop and the person leading it instructs everyone to “collaborate, collaborate, collaborate” without qualification.

At a basic level, there is some truth to the argument that HASS researchers are less collaborative than others. For example, around four out of five (80%) of STEM projects funded under the Australian Research Council Discovery scheme in the last five years involved more than one chief (or principal) investigator. For HASS projects, it was three out of four (75%). When you break the fields of research down even further, the differences are even more marked. Almost all of commerce, management, tourism and services grants are collaborative, compared to only a quarter of philosophy and religious studies projects. Education researchers tend to work in teams, historians less so.

There is a kick to this, however, when you find out that two-thirds of the sole-investigator grants are awarded to senior researchers. That is, professors, associate professors, or emeriti.

So, when a HASS researcher asks me whether they should be put in an application by themselves, I certainly take into account their discipline. And I point out that the single most important assessment criterion – track record – falls solely on them.

3. The elite universities control the bulk of the research funding. Why bother?

Anyone in research development has heard this statement repeated ad infinitum. And it’s easy to understand why, since two-thirds of Australian Research Council grants are awarded to the elite universities in Australia, the Group of Eight (Go8).

There are four things I could say here.

First, I could say that things are actually slightly better for HASS researchers than STEM researchers. It’s only a few percentage points, but it’s a difference. But that’s not the real answer.

My possible second response means going deeper into the data. I could observe that certain disciplines in HASS do quite a bit better than average. For example, more than half of Education research in Australia is headlined by non-elite universities, and in disciplines like Built Environment and Design, and Language, Communication and Culture, it’s approaching half. But that’s not the real answer either.

My third response might be that, as I said earlier, the Australian Research Council only announce the university administering the grant, not all those involved. So, involvement from universities outside of the elite is actually much higher than you might think. But that’s still not the real answer.

The real answer is:

Data analysis is extremely important to people like me, but close to meaningless for individual researchers or research teams. I look for patterns and trends across hundreds or thousands of grants. At this level, the patterns and trends are quite clear.

In contrast, researchers are focused on one piece of datum: their project. It’s no good to them if their grant, statistically speaking, has a high chance of success if it still isn’t funded. Conversely, who cares if it displays certain superficial characteristics of an uncompetitive grant (e.g. only one researcher, not in an elite university, coming out of a rarely funded discipline) as long as it gets up?

It’s very important that researchers don’t let data analytics drive behaviour. Don’t make your application only look like a good application; actually make it a good application. The basic strategy is the same across all disciplines (win the grant) but the tactics employed need to be specifically designed. That’s why there’s a need for research development staff who have a particular understanding of, and affinity for, HASS research.

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