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

Looking backwards

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes have changed, and will continue to change. 


Philosophical Transactions: giving some account of the present understanding, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. Volume 1, for years 1665 and 1666.

Frontispiece of Philosophical Transactions, by Henry Oldenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

More and more research material is either being produced as digital objects or are being digitised. I can see the first copy of Philosophical Transactions from my desk. Open licensing means that more and more of this material can be shared.

However, when it comes to the administration of this research, it is a different matter.

I tried to look up a grant that the Australian Research Council (ARC) gave out in 1999 (20 years ago). I just wanted the bare minimum – title, participants and amount awarded (bonus points for years funded). It wasn’t on the ARC’s website. They are best of breed, but their database only covers grants awarded from 2001 onwards. I finally found it because one of the people involved had published their CV online, and had listed the details of the grant.

That is because this grant belonged to the Age of Paper. Now, we live in a digital age.

We have forgotten (or were born too young to know) that we used to submit grant applications on paper. Hands up all those people who remember physically counting the pages of a grant application before you made ten copies of it and then physically posted it (or, deadlines and academics being what they are, couriered it) to the funding agency.

We live in the age of The Great Digitising: that period after digitising everything became possible, but before everything was actually digitised. So, there are lacunae, or blank spots, like the ARC’s database of grants, which covers most but not all of what they have funded. The weird thing about the blank spots is that they are mostly in the recent past. Really early stuff, like Philosophical Transactions, have been digitised. Journals and source documents in the last 50 years? Not so much (generally because of copyright issues). Grant applications that are 20 years old? Not at all!

I was looking for that grant application because one of my academics (who wasn’t part of the original grant) wanted to build on that work. They will be applying with the same industry partner, to the scheme that is the successor to the funding scheme that funded the work 20 years ago. Read more of this post

When grants were handwritten

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role.

I couldn’t actually be in Edinburgh, so my main contributions was a personal reflection on the last 30 years of research administration, and how the technology has changed. This is an expanded version of that talk.


1987: Thirty years ago

A grant application form from 1987, for the Australian Research Grants Scheme

1987: note the ‘Office use only’ boxes, where we could hand write the file number.

Thirty years ago, I began my career in research administration working for one of Australia’s national funding agencies, the Australian Research Grants Committee. I spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking to universities because, at that time, there was no effective email between government departments and the universities. I also spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the photocopier, as everything was delivered on paper.

Here is an exercise for you: imagine all the major grant applications that you submitted this year, printed out eight times each (I think we asked for eight copies of each application). Then think about the logistics involved in getting them physically transported to the funding agency on time. Today? We just push a button.

The year that I worked there was the last year of the Australian Research Grants Committee. In the next year, Don Aitken transformed it into the funding organisation that Australian researchers know today, the Australian Research Council. It was part of wider democratisation of the Australian university systemRead more of this post