Caroline McMillen

Caroline McMillen: from the VC's Desk

Celebrations... and commiserations...

This week rounded off the 2012 competitive grants announcements with the Government’s release of Australian Research Council (ARC) funding for just over 1,000 research projects across the country. This announcement came hard on the heels of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) release of the outcome of their research project and fellowship competitive rounds.

Firstly, I would just like to say that I do know how hard it is as a grant applicant to open and scan the lists of successful ARC or NHMRC grants on the web or to open that email carrying news of the funding outcome. While these can be great moments of celebration – sadly because success rates are so low – they are more often times of keeping a brave face until one can get home and share the disappointment with patient family and friends. Research is a very tough and competitive ‘contact sport’ – and there is no tougher a competition than the ARC and NHMRC grant rounds. So to those of you who were awarded funding, fellowships or equipment support in these rounds, I sincerely congratulate you – and to those of you who are still explaining to the family pet (who may be the only one left who will listen) why the system ‘got it wrong’ – I offer you my heartfelt commiserations.

All in all, this year was a tough one for the University – while we were ranked 9th in the country for NHMRC project grants, our national ranking slipped to 15th in the ARC Discovery Grant rounds. Our performance in ARC was underpinned by a great performance by staff in the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment who secured 11 of our 13 ARC Discovery Grants and, of course, we also congratulate those staff awarded ARC Discovery Early Career Research Awards and Future Fellowships earlier this year. So at the end of a hard year, it is great to be able to say that we are still ranked in the top 10 of Australian universities for our combined performance in NHMRC and ARC projects and fellowships; but it also has to be said that maintaining or improving this position is going to need a mix of determination, strategy and persistence. Our success rates for NHMRC and ARC grant applications have dropped from around 23-25% in 2011 to 15% in each scheme. There will be intense discussions around Faculty and School tables in the next weeks about how to ensure that rigorous reviews of fledging applications are sought from experienced peers, that grants are ‘hot housed’ around mock grant review panels, and that there is relentless sanding and polishing of each application before submission.

At the start of the year when we scanned the national research environment it was clear that there are universities on a terrific upward trajectory in terms of their research performance. These universities may not be more established than us, or have better infrastructure or buildings or even have lower student:staff ratios – but in all cases they have committed to an ambitious research investment plan. For that reason a planning group, led by Professors Mike Calford and Nick Talley, has developed the NeW Directions Research and Innovation Plan for 2013-2015, into which many of you have provided valuable input. This plan sets out objectives and strategies to ensure we strengthen our research performance and our international reputation and standing to meet ambitious research targets.

To meet these aspirations, the plan outlines a series of strategies for the University including building the global profile and reputation of NIER and HMRI, and ensuring these flagship institutions can achieve ambitious research and innovation targets in part through the attraction of world-class research leaders and their teams to build scale and focus and to develop strong collaborations. We also aim to grow the number of PhD students by at least 30% particularly in areas of recognised strength and to increase the number of high quality research outputs by at least 30% in the next two years. It is absolutely clear that a strong future workforce is key to improving our research performance, both individually and collectively; and we will work hard to support staff to understand and engage in the competitive world of research and to achieve outcomes that allow them to emerge as leaders in their fields.

Independently of whether you have celebrated a good outcome with a glass of something chilled and sparkling – or have coped with a not so good outcome over a cup of tea and a large block of chocolate – I thank you all. You have had the courage to put your ideas to the test, you have grappled with arcane grant submission systems and you have shown grace under fire when those assessor comments came through. Research is a long game – and in my experience it is those with the determination and persistence to engage in and learn from the competition that really do prevail in the end.

Best wishes

Caroline McMillen