Over recent weeks the Council of the Australian Mathematical Society has discussed the response that the Society should make to the government’s Green paper on research in universities.
Members of AustMS may be interested to see the final form of the AustMS response. I hope that you are happy with the response. My less measured comment is that it could be disastrous; and that the more I reflect on the Green Paper, the more alarmed and depressed I become.
Remember that the time for responses has not yet ended; my recollection is that the last date is October 7. Feel free to borrow from this response for your own purposes. In some cases it may even be possible to influence the response of your institution.
17 September, 1999
The Honourable Dr David Kemp
Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs,
Dear Dr Kemp,
re: Response to the Green Paper
The Council of the Australian Mathematical Society has considered the recent Green Paper, “New Knowledge, New Opportunities”, and has asked me to make the following response.
In formulating its response Council has borne in mind the underpinning role of the mathematical sciences in research in all the quantitative disciplines, and their critical role in innovation in every sector of the economy.
Council considers many of the reforms suggested in the Green Paper to be beneficial: in particular, it supports the increased autonomy of the ARC; it strongly supports the move to more than one cycle of large grants each year; and it is comfortable with the proposed future ARC grouping of Mathematics with Information and Communications Sciences.
It has, however, a number of serious concerns.
The need to assess quality of research output
While Council is pleased to see the attention given to “Excellence” in the Green Paper, and agrees strongly that “Arrangements for allocating public funds should focus on the achievement of world class research and research training” (Section 2.9), it notes with concern that the proposed funding formula almost entirely avoids the issue of assessing the quality of research output. Indeed, a number of the proposed changes will significantly weaken the present commitment to excellence.
One such change is the dropping of a Publications component from the funding formula, because of perceived difficulties with the collection process. Council respectfully submits that the logic is wrong: to us the failure of the collection system designed by DETYA suggests that someone else, such as the ARC and its discipline panels, should be asked to design a better system. A revised system should emphasise quality, not merely quantity. This will not be achieved unless the design of a suitable system is in the hands of professionals in the relevant disciplines.
Council strongly agrees with the Green Paper that “International publication and peer review has been central to maintaining excellence and the free flow of knowledge” (Section 1.11), and is therefore disappointed that the fine words are not matched in the funding formula.
A possible way of including quality in the assessment would be for DETYA or the ARC to conduct every few years a version of the Research Quality Exercise carried out several years ago. In such an exercise all aspects of the quality of research output, including publications, can come into play.
Several other aspects of the funding formula cause concern. One is the broadening of the definition of research income to include “consultancy income which contributes to innovation”. In reality it will surely be very difficult to distinguish such consultancy income from that which merely delivers a service. Given the Green Paper’s justifiable concern about the verifiability of data, Council submits that consultancy income which contributes to innovation will be among the most difficult forms of data to verify, and the one most open to abuse.
In contrast, one form of research income for which the data is rock-solid, and not open to any form of manipulation, is that due to nationally competitive research grants, which are, additionally, subject to rigorous peer review. That is a very good argument for extra weighting of research income from such schemes. Council would urge that an increased weighting for nationally competitive research grants, as in the present formula, be retained. It does not accept the argument that the present weighting distracts universities from their responsibilities in other directions.
The need for additional funding in the system
A number of the reforms in the Green Paper (including those mentioned in the preceding section) would seem to have the explicit aim of changing the balance towards strategic research. If there are no new funds in the system (as seems to be the basic premise of the Green Paper), then the tilt towards strategic research can only be at the expense of basic research, a situation that Council would consider untenable, given the underpinning role of basic research for all research and innovation.
Council urges the need for new funding to be injected into basic (non-medical) research. It draws attention to the recently announced moves by a number of governments (including the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore) to inject substantial new funding into research, and urges the Australian government to follow suit, so that Australia is not left behind in the race to create knowledge-based economies.
Quality of research training
Noting the importance of research student enrolments and completions in the proposed funding formula, Council is alarmed by the lack of effective mechanisms to ensure that research training is at an internationally competitive level. The experience internationally is that the surest way to ensure that research training is of high quality is to link the training closely with research (and hence with researchers) of the highest quality. The proposed arrangements for allocation and administration of Australian Postgraduate Awards fail to acknowledge the importance of this linkage. To the contrary, they appear to encourage the view that research training can be done anywhere, and by anyone. Council’s concerns about the lack of quality assurance mechanisms for research training is reinforced by the Green Paper’s failure to distinguish between the cost (and hence the value) of the PhD and research master degrees: in reality the quality and quantity of research expected in a PhD of an internationally respected standard are many times greater than for the research master degree.
Centres of excellence
In Appendix C of the Green Paper, Centres are defined as “Collaborative ventures (including universities, industry, CSIRO) with a multidisciplinary focus”. Council’s view is that while this description is valid for Centres that are CRC-like in character, it is a much narrower definition than the present definition of Special Research Centres, which in itself is narrower than we would wish to see. Internationally there are many research centres with the highest level of commitment to excellence, yet based on a single discipline such as mathematics. Australia has major strengths in a variety of areas, and its research effort would benefit considerably through the support of both single discipline and multidisciplinary Centres. Council also notes the important role that the present Key Centres can play, citing as a successful example the former Key Centre in Science and Mathematics Education at Curtin University, which is now the National Centre for Research in School Science and Mathematics, with 450 postgraduate students, many from overseas. We would urge that the definition of Centres in Appendix C be substantially broadened, so as to admit the wider spectrum of Centres typified by these examples.
Ian H. Sloan
Australian Mathematical Society