Opinion Future Fellowship scheme a great success

The ARC's Future Fellowship scheme has been a well executed initiative to invest in and build the intellectual capital of our country, and its termination would be very damaging for Australia, writes Merlin Crossley.

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Professor Merlin Crossley

OPINION: Most businesses are very careful to divide their energies between funding immediate core activities and investing in the future. The Australian Research Council's Future Fellowship scheme has been a well executed initiative to invest in and build the intellectual capital of our country.

The scheme was very clearly defined. The idea was to appoint 200 new up and coming researchers each year for five years (2009-13) to ensure we were ready for future challenges and were appropriately ensuring the renewal of our academic workforce.

(An extra 150 fellowships were then awarded in the 2013-14 budget.)

The evidence in the recent review of the scheme published on the ARC website indicates that it has been a triumph. Why was it such a success and what lessons have we learned?

The focus of the scheme was on individual excellence. A secondary aspect was the fit that fellows had with institutional strengths and priority research areas. The external assessments and expert panels ensured that quality -- rather than nepotism or geographical politics -- was the decider.

The clear rules and certainty that the scheme would unfold over five years provided institutions with the opportunity to scour the world for international recruits or Australians working abroad who would fit with their strengths.

Recent improvements to the scheme, such as allowing more time for teaching, have helped facilitate the academic development of fellows, as well as providing our students with first rate researchers in the classroom.

The prestige attached to Future Fellowships has launched a virtuous cycle. Fellows have used their profiles to draw in strong collaborators and create critical mass that builds on existing strengths.

The review of the scheme was timely for two reasons. First, it has been described as a terminating program, which has no ongoing funding, so the convincing evidence found in the review is critical to the case for continuation. Second, after the initial phase it is time to reflect on lessons learned and see whether we can do even better.

Some important points must be made here. The idea that the Future Fellowship scheme was a terminating program with a one-off budget allocation to kick-start the renewal of the academic workforce and boost morale is technically true but it is also dangerously and probably unintentionally misleading. The scheme came with a new injection of funding but it was quickly realised that it overlapped existing but smaller mid-career fellowship schemes. So, quite sensibly, the existing ARC Australian Research Fellowships and Queen Elizabeth II Fellowships were allowed to lapse and the Future Fellowships took over.

If the Future Fellowship scheme terminates then the era of ARC mid-career fellowships is over. This would be very damaging for the Australian tertiary sector. There are simply not the resources available to both integrate the existing fellows and continue to nurture the next generation of academics without some sort of mid-career fellowship scheme. Thus the overall case for continuing the highly successful Future Fellowship scheme is a strong one.

If the scheme were to continue then how could it be improved?

The review makes a number of suggestions. In line with ideas about reducing administrative burdens, it suggests extending the tenure of the fellowships to five rather than four years and increasing the research support from $50,000 a year to $100,000 a year. This would be pretty much equivalent to a research grant so would reduce workloads involved in grant applications and assessment. Such increases might need to be offset by reductions in the total number of fellows, something that could be considered.

Another suggestion of the review concerns placing the Future Fellowships within the whole package of research fellowships available in Australia. At present the National Health and Medical Research Council offers fellowships, too, so staff in medical disciplines can apply for both ARC Future Fellowships and NHMRC Fellowships. This can involve duplication and could be looked at.

The timelines for successive rounds of the Future Fellowships have been problematic. In one case successful fellows not yet aware of their success have reapplied in the next round.

No one wants this type of inefficiency and it usually arises from election cycles but could be avoided by setting fixed annual dates for applications, assessments and announcement of outcomes.

Within the ARC system (that covers science, engineering, mathematics and the arts, humanities and social sciences), the integration between the top level professorial Future Fellowships and the Discovery Outstanding Researcher Awards and the prestigious Laureate Fellowships should also be considered.

Some would argue the top level fellowships are particularly important because, unlike junior fellowships, we are judging researchers with very long track records and the risk of making a mistake is very low. With the Laureate Fellowships and top-level Future Fellows, we are really putting petrol into our fastest and most reliable cars and we expect those fellows to be trailblazers, to cover a lot of ground, and to make history: many of them do.

Australia is almost unique in how heavily it relies on highly competitive and prestigious fellowship schemes to build and sustain its academic workforce. It has taken time to refine the ARC and NHMRC processes but any objective examination of the quality of our fellows will show they are worth the support. The Future Fellowship scheme was aptly named. One hopes it will not become a thing of the past.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Dean of Science at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.