The outcomes of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) latest major grant round were released on Friday. As usual, there were a small number of winners and a large number of disappointed applicants*.
After the outcomes were announced, diligent quantitative researchers were rapidly crunching the numbers. Who was funded? The assessment process typically favoured men at all levels and in the open category of grants (Discovery Projects), the over 60s squashed younger applicants. In the early career specific grant category, two thirds of successful applicants were men.
The data were insightful. They reveal that evaluation of academic work favours entrenched researchers. They also reveal that the vast majority of applicants are men. Success rates are reasonably similar across gender lines.
The shocking 2/3rd men to 1/3rd women success ratio at the early career level prompted someone to draw up a neat infographic. This was accompanied on Twitter by an accusation that ARC CEO Professor Aidan Byrne had ensured that gender inequities in science remain entrenched. A further Conversation article analysing who was rewarded in ARC funding argued that Discovery Project significantly favour senior academics and do not foster innovation.
In various department meetings, I’ve heard endless opining about the quality of the reviewing of ARC grants. I’ve also heard blame for disappointing outcomes placed firmly on the ARC, rather than applicants, their research offices or their administrating organisations.
In many cases, these critiques certainly have merit. Some reviewing is sub-standard. Assessment systems that favour very senior academics are unlikely to foster innovation and reward creativity. Our major national funding body does have a key role in promoting diversity.
However, the ARC cannot solve academia’s systemic problems of being both highly risk averse and averse to diversity. If greater than two thirds of early career grant applicants are men to begin with, it seems obvious that huge structural issues are at play that reach far beyond the influence of a single CEO.
Academia is responsible for its culture. The ranks of senior academics are atrociously skewed towards white men because this is what our industry has chosen for itself. As an industry, we chose to be highly conservative. We could instigate change, but we chose not to.
While the ARC and government policy can help us redress our issues, we cannot abnegate our own responsibilities. Academics (of some form or another) comprise the entirety of the applicants to the ARC, the (sometimes poor) reviewers of grants and the College of Experts who oversee the selection process. When we complain that the ARC is useless because a spurious review took place, we must at least make some acknowledgement that academia imposes this systems onto itself and enacts it.
We must stop blaming others for our industry’s woes*. The longer we seek to point blame elsewhere, the longer we prevaricate.
* I was very pleased to be in the minority of successful early career applicants. Thanks to everyone who has helped me!
* I errantly voiced this idea on Twitter and would like to pre-emptively point out that I don’t think and never have thought that women do not succeed in academia because they are sh*t. I think women are great.