A few insights into the inner workings of the Australian Research Council

13 05 2022

I’ve been on the Australian Research Council (ARC) College of Experts now for a little over two and a half years. It has been a time-consuming, yet insightful experience. Without attempting to breach all the confidentiality agreements I signed when I joined up, I would like to explain a few of the internal machinations that go on behind the scenes once a grant application is submitted.

Given that academics spend A LOT of (i.e., way too much) time writing research grants, I think it’s essential to understand not only how to maximise your probability of success (see this post for some generic tips), but also how your grant is treated once you submit it. I’ve heard from colleagues (and been responsible for myself) many unhappy gripes about the ARC over time, which appear to have increased over the last five years in particular.

There are certainly some very good reasons to be upset about the research-grant environment in Australia. While I will restrict this post to issues concerning the ARC because that’s what I know best, I gather that many of the same issues plague other national agencies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). But to dispel the suspicion that the ARC is just out to make our lives hell, I’m going to provide a list of my experiences on what I think they do exceptionally well. I’m definitely not taking sides here, because after the list of pros, I’ll provide a detailed list of cons and some ways I think the ARC can move forward.


The ARC is very, very good at avoiding bias in the assessment process. Even if some potential bias does manage to creep in, the ARC is also extremely efficient at identifying and removing it. First, all assigned ‘carriages’ (College Experts) assigned to grants cannot work at the same institution as the applicants, they cannot have published with any of the applicants, nor can they have any other association with them. All potential conflicts of interest are declared and dealt with immediately up front.

Second, carriages cannot assign assessors with any of the aforementioned conflicts of interest given restrictions in the online applications that we use to identify and assign suitable assessors.

Third, during the actual deliberations, anyone who has any perceived conflict of interest must ‘leave the room’ (done in Zoom these days), nor can those people even see the grants under discussion for which they’ve been deemed conflicted.


I have to admit that I’ve been involved in few processes that were more democratic than advisory panel meetings for deciding the fate of ARC grant applications. Any grant under discussion is not only pored over by the ‘detailed assessors’ (those are the comments to which you have to write a rejoinder), it is discussed in gory detail by the carriages. We not only read all of the detailed assessors’ reports and your rejoinder (after already having read the proposal itself many times), we also compare our scores among carriage members, discuss any scoring disparities, argue for or against various elements, and generally come to a consensus. For those grants under discussion, we also vote as an entire panel, with only majority ‘yes’ grants getting through.

Word of advice here — treat your rejoinder very seriously, and be succinct, polite, erudite, and topical. A good rejoinder can make or break any application.

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Wondering if you should apply for a DECRA?

7 02 2022

Do you love doing job applications, but wish they were longer and more involved?

If so, applying for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) should be right up your alley.

If, like most people, you answered a resounding NO! to that question, there are still many good reasons to apply for a DECRA. But there are also some completely valid reasons why you might not apply, so it pays to weigh up the pros and cons if you’re thinking about it.

Let’s go through some of these points, plus tips on how to make a competitive application (I just submitted a DECRA application in the last round, so it’s all painfully fresh in my memory). 

What the hell is a DECRA?

The Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards offered by the Australian Research Council are highly competitive, with success rates of between 12% (ouch!) and 20% across years (but expect especially low success rates in the next round/DECRA23, given the bumper crop of applicants). 

DECRAs are restricted to researchers who are (i) less than 5-years out from their PhD conferral, and (ii) who are proposing non-medical projects.

The 5-year eligibility period is based on time spent ‘research active’, to accommodate the different career pathways people follow. This means that people who haven’t been working 100% in research since completing their PhD can tally up career interruptions (which can relate to illnesses or disability, carer responsibilities, parental leave, unemployment, and employment in non-research positions) and extend their eligibility period.

So even if you are well-over 5 years post PhD (as was the case for me), you might still be eligible to apply. If you’re considering a medical science project, then you need to check out the schemes offered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Pros and Cons

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Experiments in carbon-biodiversity trade-offs

19 07 2012

Last month I covered a topic that is not only becoming the latest fashion-trend in conservation, it is also where much of the research funding is going. Whether or not this is the best use of limited research resources is largely irrelevant – as I always preach to fledgling grant writers: “Write about what the funding agency wants to fund, not what you want to do”. Cynical, I know, but it is oh-so-true.

The topic in question is how we as conservation biologists ensure that the new carbon economy drives positive change for biodiversity, rather than the converse. Hell knows we really can’t afford for land-use change to get any worse for biodiversity; worldwide we are on trajectory for a mass extinction within our lifetime, so anything that potentially makes it worse should be squashed completely.

But it seems that land- and seascape changes that might arise from trading carbon (including carbon pricing) are on a knife-edge as far as biodiversity is concerned. I described this dilemma in my previous post, and I am happy to say that the manuscript arising is almost complete. Briefly, if we as a society decide to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and capture as much carbon as possible by altering land-use practices, then it is likely that our forests will become vast monocultures incapable of sustaining much biodiversity at all. In other words, there’s a balance to be struck between what is good for carbon sequestration and what is good for biodiversity. While not always mutually exclusive, neither are they mutually attainable goals. Read the rest of this entry »

ERA rankings for Conservation and Ecology journals

11 02 2010

The much-touted Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative was established in 2008 to “…assesses research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees comprising experienced, internationally-recognised experts”. Following on the heels of the United Kingdom’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and Australia’s previous attempt at such a ranking (the now-defunct Research Quality Framework), we will now have a system that ranks research performance and universities in this country. Overall I think it’s a good thing so that the dead-wood can lift their game or go home, but no ranking system is perfect. Some well-deserving people will be left out in the cold.

Opinions aside, I thought it would be useful to provide the ERA journal ranking categories in conservation and ecology for my readers, particularly for those in Australia. See also my Journals page for conservation journals, their impact factors and links. The ERA has ranked 20,712 unique peer-reviewed journals, with each given a single quality rating (or is not ranked). The ERA is careful to say that “A journal’s quality rating represents the overall quality of the journal. This is defined in terms of how it compares with other journals and should not be confused with its relevance or importance to a particular discipline.”.

They provide four tiers of quality rating:

  • A* =  Typically one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted. Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions.
  • A =  The majority of papers in a Tier A journal will be of very high quality. Publishing in an A journal would enhance the author’s standing, showing they have real engagement with the global research community and that they have something to say about problems of some significance. Typical signs of an A journal are lowish acceptance rates and an editorial board which includes a reasonable fraction of well known researchers from top institutions.
  • B = Tier B covers journals with a solid, though not outstanding, reputation. Generally, in a Tier B journal, one would expect only a few papers of very high quality. They are often important outlets for the work of PhD students and early career researchers. Typical examples would be regional journals with high acceptance rates, and editorial boards that have few leading researchers from top international institutions.
  • C =  Tier C includes quality, peer reviewed, journals that do not meet the criteria of the higher tiers.

If you’re an Australian conservation ecologist, then you’d be wise to target the higher-end journals for publication over the next few years (it will affect your rank).

So, here goes:

Conservation Journals

Ecology Journals (in addition to those listed above; only A* and A)

  • A*: Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, Biological Reviews, Ecological Monographs, Ecology, Ecology Letters, Environment International, Fish and Fisheries, Global Ecology and Biogeography, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, PLoS Biology, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, The American Naturalist, The Quarterly Review of Biology
  • A: Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, Animal Behaviour, American Journal of Primatology, Auk, Behavioral Ecology, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, BioEssays, Biology Letters, Bioscience, BMC Biology, Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Coral Reefs, Diversity and Distributions, Ecography, Ecological Applications, Fisheries, Freshwater Biology, Functional Ecology, International Journal of Primatology, Journal of Applied Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology, Journal of Avian Biology, Journal of Biogeography, Journal of Ecology, Journal of Experimental Biology, Journal of Fish Biology, Journal of Mammalogy, Journal of the North American Benthological Society, Journal of Zoology, Molecular Ecology, Oecologia, Oikos, Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, Reviews in Fisheries Science, Wildlife Monographs, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society

I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but that’ll cover most of the relevant journals. For the full, tortuous list of journals in Excel format, click here. Happy publishing!

CJA Bradshaw

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