A sting in the tail: The poisonous uncertainty of Australia’s research grants process

This guest post has been written by the ARC Tracker. We don’t know who they are, but we like what they are doing.

ARC Tracker is part human, part bot. The human part tracks Australian Research Council funding outcomes, and the bot checks the Council’s website for outcome announcements every minute. ARC Tracker is not an official part of the Australian Research Council system. You can find @ARC_Tracker on Twitter.


'Rejected' - the ARC Tracker's avatarImagine you’re running a small business. But imagine you only have one customer, and there’s only a one-in-five chance of getting a contract with them each year.

Obviously, you plough huge, disproportionate effort into getting that contract. But you’ve missed out for a couple of years. Will you have to lay off staff? Can you stay in business? Amidst this pressure, imagine the customer delays: “maybe I’ll let you know sometime in summer”.

Summer comes and goes. Nothing. The uncertainty is too much for key staff, and they leave. You can’t hire anyone to replace them, and the weeks drag on. You’re desperate.

All Governments recognise how such massive uncertainty kills businesses. Yet the Australian Government subjects its top researchers to this every year.

Uncertainty is fundamental to research. Without it, research wouldn’t exist. But just like in business, uncertainty in funding is poison. Research is done by people, and this uncertainty poisons their planning, competitiveness, collaborations, motivation for research, personal lives and mental health.

This poison runs through Australia’s research grants process from start to finish. But the finish is venomously uncertain, and for no good reason. My Twitter account tries to construct a tiny bit of certainty in these often desperate, delirious months of uninformed chaos.

But the real antidote is so simple and easy to administer. Read more of this post

Getting your crowd-funding project off the ground

Lauren GawneLauren Gawne is a David Myers Research Fellow at La Trobe University. Her research focuses on grammar and gesture in Tibetan languages of Nepal. She is one half of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that is enthusiastic about linguistics, with Gretchen McCulloch. You can find bonus episodes on Patreon, and they also have a range of stylish merch. Lauren also runs the blog Superlinguo and By Lingo for The Big Issue (Australia).

She tweets from @superlinguo, and through the Lingthusiasm Twitter account, @lingthusiasm. Her ORCID is: 0000-0003-4930-4673.


Lingthusiasm banner | Image courtesy of Lauren Gawne.

Crowdfunding a project is a great way for your research, or research communication, to connect with a wider audience. Sometimes, it’s the only way to make a project happen if it doesn’t fit into traditional funding models.

Crowd-funding can also support projects that are joyful or beautiful, which are not standard grant metrics. Crowd-funding is not a panacea for the continued shortfall in government and philanthropic funding, but it is an exciting tool for research.

Jonathan has already written a great introduction to patronage as a funding model. This could be a one-off campaign on Kickstarter or Pozible, or a monthly subscription type project through platforms like Patreon or Substack. If you have an idea for a project, this post has some advice for how to think about setting up a crowd-funded project. The patronage model isn’t for everyone, but I’ve enjoyed learning how to run a project in a way that draws on business planning as well as the usual project planning that I do as an academic.  Read more of this post

Funding an encyclopedia

Image from Jess Nevins' Kickstarted campaign

Image from Jess Nevins’ Kickstarted campaign

One of my favourite Kickstarter campaigns is The Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes by Jess Nevins.

In 2013, Jess raised $15,671 from 444 backers to publish an encyclopedia. Imagine, for a moment, that this was part of a research program. It wasn’t, but it could very well be. Encyclopedia are collections of knowledge, and provide fundamental information that provide the building blocks for new discoveries.

If you are interested in funding your research through crowdfunding, there are some really good lessons that you can draw from the Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes campaign.

Read more of this post

Talking about salaries

Commonwealth Bank of Australia ten-shilling note, showing both sides of the note
Commonwealth Bank of Australia ten-shilling note, via Wikimedia.

At universities in Australia, we get used to knowing one another’s salaries (in rough terms). Every university uses the same basic salary structure, and has relatively comparable pay rates within that structure. So, if someone is a Professor or a Lecturer, you know roughly how much they earn.

This familiarity means that we often forget that this isn’t the case in all sectors. A friend who worked in the IT sector said that he worked for an organisation where it was a sackable offence to discuss your salary with a colleague. Everybody was on negotiated rates, and the last thing that management wanted was for workers to compare their pay rates, especially if they were doing the same work.

That isn’t really a problem until you want to include an industry partner in the budget of an application. Then these differences can be tricky to talk about. Read more of this post

The gendered impacts of funding Australia’s research

Janine Pickering is a senior consultant for CIS Consulting and Implementation Services. She works with individuals, teams, and organisations to design and implement positive workplace change.

Her passion lies at the interface of industry and academia where innovation thrives. So, it was a natural next step to include the role of ‘pracademic’ in her career portfolio. In this, she combines her consulting expertise with part-time lecturing/tutoring and research at Swinburne University. Her PhD is in Economic Sociology, with research interests in gender, work and organisations. She can be contacted via LinkedIn.


Mind the Gap goes feminist! by London Student Feminists [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Mind the Gap goes feminist! by London Student Feminists [CC BY-SA 3.0]

I have a bee in my bonnet about the impact of grant funding on women’s research careers so, last year, I made a submission to the Senate Inquiry into Funding Australia’s Research.

Although gender equity was not the main focus of the Inquiry, it is a crucial issue for productivity in research, hence several submissions raised it. The submission from the Australian Academy of Science EMCR Forum, for example, highlighted the significant disadvantages to women and minorities in the competitive funding process due to systemic biases and poor evaluation of track record relative to opportunity.

On reading the final report (722 Kb PDF), it was apparent that most of the Inquiry submissions as well as the Committee’s recommendations were focused on iterative changes to the current system, not a complete overhaul. However, based on my PhD research (2010 – 2015) into gender dynamics in biotech organisations (2.27 Mb PDF), I believe a tweaking of the current funding system will have only minimal impact on the outcomes for women in research and, consequently, on research productivity. My research was specific to science but I expect is equally relevant to the humanities and other areas.

I compared the career outcomes of women and men in biotechnology. A major finding was that women are more likely to become managers in commercial biotech firms than in public research organisations and, when they do, they hold management roles with relatively similar responsibilities and pay to men. In contrast, in public research organisations such as universities and research institutes, women who become managers tend to congregate in lower level management positions. Read more of this post

Kids in bids

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 March 2019 as ‘Let’s talk about the kids’. It is reproduced with the permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


An statue of Clara Campoamor as a little girl, sitting on books and reading a big book with her name on it.
Clara Campoamor (detail) by Anna Jonsson, in Seville, 2007

Before I begin, I need to make it clear that I have no children.

As such, I apologise if some of what I say about families and research is a little off-kilter. This post stands in stark contrast to Sarah Haye’s beautiful piece, ‘How having kids made me a better academic‘. Think of me as the stereotypical reviewer of your research funding bids – an older male, with no kids in sight.

Recently, I read a grant application where the applicant had written:

“I am a mother of two small children (ages 5 and 8) and therefore for this period there was little time for research.”

There has been a strong movement over the last ten years to acknowledge the impact that being primary carer has on research careers. Many granting bodies now make allowance for the impact of raising a family, which is wonderful and long overdue. It is a step towards fairness and equality, and it recognises that researchers are people.

However, we don’t often talk about people in funding bids.

When we write research applications, we often shift into a depersonalised space, where the focus is on the ideas. When we talk about people at all, we speak formally: “CI Needs-Grant will take responsibility for…” and “PI Wants-Funding is a recognised expert…”.

For the most part, these conventions abstract us from our personal situation. I don’t think that is always a good thing, but it is the convention. Also, we describe a fantasy land of Full Time Equivalent workloads and balanced budgets, knowing full well that much of the work will be done out of hours, as self-funded overtime that takes us away from our families. We talk about research partners and research assistants in purely abstract terms, stripping away any indication that they are also friends and valued colleagues, who might be depending on this grant to save their job.

We shouldn’t do that when we talk about our families. They are special and shouldn’t ever be abstracted away. Read more of this post

Narrative of ideas

Old volumes of books: Historian's history of the world volume XXIII, and three volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia

Ideas of the world, by Jonathan O’Donnell

I’ve just been reading a Fellowship application. The applicant is brilliant. She has a great project idea that is urgently needed, and had excellent potential to lead to both theoretical developments and real changes in practice.

I was excited to read her application, because she has done great stuff in the past. She has an amazing international network, both in her research field and across academia generally. She has developed really innovative methods and theoretical developments, as well as doing exemplary work with the community and the profession that her research serves.

Perhaps you can imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find much of that great stuff in her CV. There was one specific question that asks for research achievements and contributions. She had answered that question correctly, but… it didn’t sparkle.

All the amazing things that I knew she had done were listed in her CV, but I had to dig for them. I found the fact that she had been offered two different international fellowships at once buried in a discussion of opportunities to do research, along with the fact that she had chaired an international committee auspiced by the UN. I found some of her theoretical contributions and the translation of her research into practice buried in her list of ten best publications. Her leadership work with African researchers was listed as an interruption to her research career.

To help her turn this around, I suggested that she provide a narrative of ideas.

Read more of this post