National interest test forces hundreds of grant rewrites

ARC reveals macro scale of its micro-management of funding applicants’ statements

September 15, 2022
Belgrade, Serbia, May 31, 2017 Typing right on the mark.
Source: iStock

More than 300 Australian researchers and research teams have been forced to rewrite “national interest test” (NIT) statements in their grant applications, with about 200 of them required to do so on multiple occasions.

A document tabled in the Senate reveals that more than one in eight applicants were directed to revise their NIT statements by the chief executive of the Australian Research Council (ARC), with almost two-thirds of them instructed to do so at least twice.

The requirement to produce NIT statements, plain-English summaries of the intended societal benefits of research proposals, was introduced in 2018. Critics said it duplicated information that applicants were already obliged to provide.

In recent months, micro-management of the statements – a phenomenon known as “NIT-picking” – has been blamed for delays to ARC funding decisions of up to 10 weeks.

The document was prepared in response to an order by Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi. “This data reveals the concerning extent of the ARC CEO’s interference and just how broken and unnecessary the national interest test is,” said Dr Faruqi, a former academic.

“I find it galling that the CEO of ARC saw fit to interfere in more than 300 peer-reviewed applications, delaying valuable projects and endangering researchers’ careers.”

The data cover the 2022 rounds of the Future Fellowships and Laureate Fellowships schemes, the final 2021 round of Linkage Projects and 2023 rounds of three other grant programmes.

They include Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), the main funding scheme for junior academics. Of the 1,335 applications to DECRA, 153 were returned for NIT revisions – 113 of them at least twice.

The data do not include the ARC’s biggest funding scheme, Discovery Projects, which has attracted almost 2,600 applications for funding in 2023. Processing of these applications has not yet progressed to the stage where NIT revisions are sought, the document says.

The Discovery Indigenous scheme attracted the highest proportion of rewrite demands – more than one-third – but also by far the fewest applications. “It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that NIT-picking has disproportionately interfered with the applications of indigenous researchers,” Dr Faruqi said.

She said the test should be discarded. Education minister Jason Clare says the test is necessary, but has instructed the ARC to make it “clearer and simpler”.

The ARC acknowledged an increase in NIT statements being returned for redrafting, but said it was consulting stakeholders on “clearer guidance for all applicants”. A spokesman said the agency had a “long history of support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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