A message from the Chair: July 2020

Welcome to this edition of the APRIL Newsletter.

I would like to update everyone in relation to some issues arising from APRIL Board meetings held in April and June.

At the Board meeting held in April, the Board accepted a majority of the recommendations from the Research and Development (R&D) Advisory Committee for funding of Industry Priority and Transformational Projects – but not all of them. There were a number of issues arising that the Board felt it had to disagree with concerning the recommendations. Broadly, these fell into a couple of categories. First, there were concerns about some projects where joint funding with Australian Pork Limited was contemplated but not agreed upon, and second, a few projects fell into a category of essentially “product testing” where the Board felt APRIL investment was not warranted or of marginal value.

The APRIL Board never intends becoming a “rubber stamp” to the recommendations of the R&D Advisory Committee, but nor do we want to routinely reject projects that have already had so much work put into them. Besides the obvious work of the researchers/research teams in writing up significant proposals, APRIL is privileged to have a very willing group of reviewers. Some projects have had as many as 10 scientific reviews before reaching the R&D Advisory Committee Subcommittee, then the full R&D Advisory Committee, and then the Board, and yet the Board has not felt confident to invest in them. Why is this happening?

The Board decided on three actions to try and make the process smoother in the future. These are:

  • Undertake a review of the APRIL processes associated with the submission of research projects. We have now completed this internal review and at its June meeting, the Board has asked the CEO to introduce a preliminary research proposal (if applicable) to provide an opportunity for feedback before researchers or reviewers have put in many hours of effort; we have also decided to discontinue the R&D Advisory Committee Subcommittee. We felt this step would empower the full R&D Advisory Committee and eliminate “double handling” of the applications;
  • Greater coordination between APRIL and APL. Margo Andrae, John Pluske and I will look at how we might achieve tighter coordination of projects where APRIL and APL have a common interest. A number of issues arose in the Industry Priority and Transformational Project applications including possible duplication of past or current work; differing views on the relative importance to industry (both where proposals to the APRIL Board were deemed to be making a relatively simple issue into a significant and costly one, and where only a small project was addressing an issue that warrants a whole program of coordinated investment); and on budget approaches. APL has moved to appoint a Director of Research and Innovation, and the APRIL Chief Scientist/CEO will work closely with that person once in place.
  • Encouraging stronger feedback mechanisms. In this funding round, on every occasion that the Board rejected a proposal, someone had already raised our concern before it made it to the Board. Should we allow for a period of adjustment to research proposals in light of the feedback from the reviewers and/or R&D Advisory Committee? We tend to be asking our Chief Scientist to take on board too much of the feedback to develop projects, and not distinguishing between feedback that is simply helpful in project development (“you need to include another experimental treatment”) versus feedback that should either stop the proposal or trigger a major re-think (“you can buy that in Europe today” or “APL already has that information”). We need everyone involved in the process to feel empowered enough to speak up if a project proposal needs a serious re-think. In this regard, the Board is encouraging every member of the R&D Advisory Committee to voice any concerns. Managers within APRIL and APL are in a good position to see duplication or under- or over-investment in an area, and we are encouraging them to be proactive and voice concerns.

In other news, the Board was pleased with the development of the CRC-P application and the Australian Research Council-Linkage application, and felt there was real expertise and deep thinking applied to the challenges raised in the Strategic Plan. We were delighted with the successful outcome of the Linkage application and obviously disappointed by the failure of the CRC-P application to be funded. However, the CRC-P round was hyper-competitive and APRIL’s application was rated in the top quartile. It can be worked on and resubmitted for the next round, which should open very soon.

In personal news, I have resigned my full-time role with the Cooperative Research Centres’ Association (CRC-A). I hit the 10-year mark and felt it was time for someone else to take over. From now until Christmas, I’ll go part time with the CRC-A as we search for a replacement. I expect the move will give me more time for the APRIL role, and I’ll look at a few other non-executive roles. 

Dr Tony Peacock