Looking backwards


More and more research material is either being produced as digital objects or are being digitised. I can see the first copy of Philosophical Transactions from my desk. Open licensing means that more and more of this material can be shared.

However, when it comes to the administration of this research, it is a different matter.

I tried to look up a grant that the Australian Research Council (ARC) gave out in 1999 (20 years ago). I just wanted the bare minimum – title, participants and amount awarded (bonus points for years funded). It wasn’t on the ARC’s website. They are best of breed, but their database only covers grants awarded from 2001 onwards. I finally found it because one of the people involved had published their CV online, and had listed the details of the grant.

That is because this grant belonged to the Age of Paper. Now, we live in a digital age.

We have forgotten (or were born too young to know) that we used to submit grant applications on paper. Hands up all those people who remember physically counting the pages of a grant application before you made ten copies of it and then physically posted it (or, deadlines and academics being what they are, couriered it) to the funding agency.

We live in the age of The Great Digitising: that period after digitising everything became possible, but before everything was actually digitised. So, there are lacunae, or blank spots, like the ARC’s database of grants, which covers most but not all of what they have funded. The weird thing about the blank spots is that they are mostly in the recent past. Really early stuff, like Philosophical Transactions, have been digitised. Journals and source documents in the last 50 years? Not so much (generally because of copyright issues). Grant applications that are 20 years old? Not at all!

I was looking for that grant application because one of my academics (who wasn’t part of the original grant) wanted to build on that work. They will be applying with the same industry partner, to the scheme that is the successor to the funding scheme that funded the work 20 years ago.

Changes in process

Let’s think about the research administration differences between those two applications (and the similarities) apart from paper vs digital.

In drafting the application today, my academic will probably get much more advice. More specifically, they’ll probably get advice from a lot more people. Twenty years ago, she would have given the application to some colleagues who (hopefully) gave her good discipline-based advice – she will do the same now. I’ll read it as an educated lay person, and provide strategic advice based on having read a whole lot of applications. My predecessor would have given her similar advice 20 years ago. Someone in the central research office will check that it is compliant, same as they would have 20 years ago. Some of these functions have been decentralised, but that isn’t really a substantial change. It is just part of the eternal centralisation – decentralisation rhythm of the university.

One substantial change is that we will now send the application to an external person, an emeritus professor, whom we will pay to review the application. In my experience, that wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. Perhaps we would have hired consultants to advise on a million-dollar research centre proposal back then? Now, we routinely send top tier applications out for paid review.

Some academics will prepare their applications in plenty of time. Some will run late. Some will write excellent drafts. Some won’t. Some will listen to advice. Some won’t. Some will revise multiple times. Some won’t. Nothing new there.

How we track the applications has changed, though. Twenty years ago we might have written it on a whiteboard (volumes were lower then) and kept a list on a computer. Once a week, we would have sent a physical copy to the Dean of Research with a report on progress. Once a month, there might have been a report to Research Committee. Now, we have a centralised tracking sheet (or database) that multiple people can see and update. More people mean a higher level of scrutiny, which carries with it a higher level of expectation.

More people know who is applying. More people know who is running late with their application. More questions are asked.

The grant is submitted electronically now. In pressing that great big SUBMIT button, the authorised delegate is testifying that the university endorses all these applications. Once upon a time, that would have been an actual signature (or a stamp of a signature) on an actual document, but the essence is the same.

Nowadays, we worry that the computer will go down. Back then, we worried that the courier wouldn’t turn up.

The funding agency will send the application for review – then, it was by mail; now, it’s by email. Reviews will be entered into the database, from around the country or around the world. Then they would have been mailed back. In theory that saves time, but in fact the time needed to write the reviews hasn’t changed. Nor has the need to chase recalcitrant reviewers.

Twenty years ago, the ARC would have flown around the country and given applicants a chance to respond to the reviews, face to face. Now, in part because the number of applications has grown, applicants submit a written rejoinder.

The funding agency will make decisions, based on the application and the reviews, and their own reading of the applications. They have electronic access to all this information at their fingertips, but they also have a lot more applications to deal with. But the basics haven’t changed – there isn’t enough money to fund all the excellent applications, so hard choices need to be made.

Some applications will get funded. Others won’t. A lot of people will be very, very disappointed. Some people will sue. That hasn’t changed. Thirty years ago, working at a funding agency, I wrote all my notes in pencil. They can’t do that now, so the emphasis on due process is stronger, and the training of the committee members is more rigorous.

The Minister’s office will probably delay the announcement, for unfathomable political purposes – this hasn’t changed.

Because the applications are submitted electronically, via a database, the funding agency can provide more detailed reporting, more easily. More importantly, every academic in Australia (and everyone else who might be interested) can now see all the details of all the successful applications immediately. Colleagues can send emails of congratulation or commiseration much more quickly now. Previously, it took a bit of time for the news to percolate through the system.

I don’t think that contracting has changed that much. There still needs to be a contract. Perhaps it is circulated electronically now, but there will still be delays when it sits on someone’s desk for an unconscionable amount of time. It won’t physically sit on their desk unless they print it out, but the resulting delay, and dissatisfaction with the process, will still be the same.

Post-award has changed a lot, I think. More reporting requirements. Stricter ethics regimes. More pressure for ‘top tier’ articles. Maybe the pressure was always been there, but it previously sat at an individual or discipline level. Great researchers have always pushed themselves (and their teams) to publish in the best journals. Colleagues have always kept an unspoken league ladder of the best people in their discipline. Now, though, I think that there is explicit pressure from university administrators to publish, and publish well. There are annual targets, promotion criteria and executive bonuses to satisfy. This moves the pressure from a collegial space to an administrative and institutional space.

I’d like to say that the system is more equitable now, more tolerant of women and minorities. Unfortunately, Deb Verhoeven and Stuart Palmer’s work on Daversity shows that all our work on equity hasn’t been very effective (or the system was even more broken back then).