How can you work without funding?


Most researchers don’t have to check the eligibility criteria of every funding opportunity that comes across their desk.

Researchers from other countries do because there is a very real possibility that they won’t be eligible due to their citizenship status. This post discusses the situation of non-Australian researchers working in Australia, but the problem crops up in other places around the world.

Neither Christa Dang nor Jonathan O’Donnell are lawyers. Therefore, you shouldn’t rely on this post as legal advice. Christa writes from the point of view of someone who has experienced this situation. Jonathan writes as someone who helps applicants to try to find funding in Australia. They both find this situation very frustrating. 

There are a bewildering range of visas that allow people to come to Australia. Some allow people to study while here. Some, but not all, visas allow ‘temporary residents’ to work. For example, international students in Australia can work while being mindful of the restrictions appropriate to their circumstances. Anyone in paid employment as a researcher or otherwise must hold a visa with working rights. Even so, many Australian research funding schemes restrict applications to Australian citizens and permanent residents.

Jonathan had always thought that this was particularly true for government funding schemes, as they want to show value to the Australian taxpayer. One way to do this is by excluding non-taxpayers from applying. However, it is the research that provides value to the taxpayer, and most funds stipulate that the research must be conducted primarily in Australia. Anyone with working rights in Australia pays taxes, but not being an Australian permanent resident or citizen is enough to be ineligible in a lot of cases.

This is particularly a problem for researchers seeking a fellowship that provides a salary. We see people who have the right to earn a salary in Australia barred from applying for research funding because of the ‘Australian citizen or permanent resident’ wording. For example, if Christa is looking for a Fellowship, she is eligible to hold an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), which specifies that applicants “must obtain a legal right to work and reside in Australia”, but she is not eligible to hold a National Health and Medical Research (NHMRC) Investigator (fellowship) grant, because they are limited to “an Australian or New Zealand citizen, or a permanent resident of Australia”.

If she is seeking project funding, she is eligible to hold (but not lead) an NHMRC Ideas grant, as only the first named Chief Investigator is restricted by citizenship. She is eligible to hold and lead an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grant, which specifies that Chief Investigators must “be an employee for at least 20 per cent of full time equivalent (0.2 FTE) at an [Australian university], or be a holder of an honorary academic appointment”. These funding schemes are all run by the federal government of Australia, so you would expect some consistency in government policy. It is even more confusing when funding agencies, such as the Australian Research Council, have different rules for different schemes. That means that applicants have to check their eligibility for every scheme, not just for each funder.

There are no clear overarching rules for ‘temporary resident’ eligibility, but the general trend seems to be that migrant researchers can’t apply for most fellowships but can apply for some project funding.

For PhD students completing their degree, that isn’t an incentive to stay in Australia. It’s an incentive to take their talents elsewhere to build their careers. Over the last 18 months, we’ve heard a lot about the importance of international students to the Australian economy but we don’t do enough to keep talented migrants in Australia after they’ve graduated. How many talented minds have we lost for this reason? ‘Brain drain’ takes many forms, and this is one of them.

Restricting fellowships to Australian citizens and permanent residents doesn’t help to reduce the risk of ‘brain drain’. Anyone can move overseas after a fellowship, even permanent residents and citizens. Many variables are involved in determining what happens after a fellowship ends. Not even having the option to apply for fellowships narrows down the possibilities for migrant researchers without necessarily improving outcomes for Australia.

This sort of restriction does increase the feeling of being an outsider that many migrant researchers feel despite making Australia their home (sometimes for decades). Applications for permanent residency can take years to process. There is a very real possibility that migrant researchers may spend their entire early career period locked out from many funding opportunities. It’s tough to be told to just ‘play the game’ when these sorts of rules make it feel like the game is rigged against you.

Funding agencies could improve this situation by using more inclusive language. The phrase ‘Australian citizen or permanent resident’ is, in our opinion, a holdover from a past age and is not really fit for purpose anymore. It would be better if funders used a broader definition such as ‘applicants must obtain the right to work in Australia before funding commences’. It would also be helpful if funders standardised their rules across their schemes.

Universities can help by including the relevant wording in summaries of grants, so that potential applicants can see whether they are eligible before downloading and reading the rules. Funding databases, such as Research Professional, generally do this. However, because each scheme uses slightly different rules, the best that these databases can do is allow users to filter according to citizenship. This is useful, but doesn’t take into account rules around the right to work in a country.

As always, applicants should read the guidelines. If the guidelines don’t mention any restrictions, then anyone in the world can apply. If they do have a restriction, then you must observe those restrictions, even if they don’t make sense to you (or us).

Applicants might also want to mention that their opportunities to gain funding have been restricted in this way in the ‘research opportunity / career interruption’ section of their funding applications. We think that you should let reviewers know that your visa provides you with the right to work in Australia, but restricts the funding that you can hold. This allows the reviewers to assess your research opportunities against those who have been able to apply for all funds.

It is hard for us to understand why funding bodies restrict applicants in this way. Over the years, Christa has asked funding bodies why the eligibility criteria is the way it is and has never really gotten any satisfactory answers.

Funders don’t have much to lose by allowing ‘temporary residents’ to apply for fellowships and other restricted funding opportunities, but there certainly is a lot to gain.