ARC funding for fieldwork

Felicity Meakins f.meakins at
Mon Feb 13 02:37:49 UTC 2012

This may be of interest to people seeking funding for grants involving fieldwork:

Finding funds for outback digs <>

The cost of research for archaeology and anthropology could be reduced by tapping money that mining companies pay for cultural heritage compliance, writes Claire Smith.

Recent changes to grants programs run by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) have caused widespread concern within field-based disciplines in Australia, such as archaeology, anthropology and Aboriginal languages. The debate around these changes highlights the high costs of conducting fieldwork in Australia, our reliance on a limited number of funding bodies and the need to identify additional sources of research funding.

The recently released 2013 funding rules for Australian Research Council Discovery Program placed a limit of $50,000 on the travel budget over the life of the project. Such a limitation would have severely limited field-based research projects.  Fieldwork in Australia is expensive. Though people conducting research in remote areas may well live in tents or caravans, the travel costs are high. This is due to the high cost of four-wheel-drive vehicles and the length of time that is required for many fieldwork projects, itself an artefact of the remoteness of the location – if it takes three days to get to a location, you need to make the stay worthwhile.

Moreover, in disciplines such as archaeology data collection is undertaken by a team of people, all of whom have to travel to the field location. A maximum of $50,000 over a three-year project would have stifled fundamental research in those disciplines that require extensive fieldwork. Last week’s clarification from the Australian Research Council caused widespread relief. The updating of frequently asked questions included one on field research costs in remote areas of Australia and overseas and a response that only the flights to and from the research site were considered to be travel.

Fieldwork costs could be sought under a separate category. When this clarification was announced you could almost hear the collective sigh on the email lists of the affected disciplinary communities. Apprehension regarding changes to ARC funding was exacerbated by existing concerns regarding the recent suspension of the AIATSIS grants program. This small but critical funding program has run since the 1980s. With an annual funding allocation of about $680,000, it has supported crucial seed research in archaeology, anthropology and Aboriginal languages – research that would not have been funded, otherwise.

It has been a critical source of funding for indigenous scholars and for doctoral and early career researchers, and has been an important step for many young scholars seeking to establish a track record for ARC funding. Moreover, a condition of funding was that research materials would be deposited with the institute, and AIATSIS now has a world-renowned archive of about 1 million items, ranging from tape recordings of languages that are now extinct or under threat, to films and photographs by early ethnographic researchers.

 AIATSIS is struggling for funding on a number of fronts. The recent non-renewal of a Commonwealth funding program for the digital conversion of the institute’s archive left 80 per cent of the collection unconverted. AIATSIS was forced to make use of its savings to maintain the program this year. Much of the older material is under threat from disintegration, including old films, magnetic tape recordings and glass-negative photographs. These materials were collected by early ethnographers and contain information that cannot be replicated or replaced.

While disciplinary alarm regarding changes to ARC funding rules has now passed, and there are hopes that provision for the AIATSIS digitisation scheme will be reinstated in the Commonwealth’s 2012-13 budget, the unease generated by these incidents prompts consideration of untapped sources of support for field research in Australia.

At the same time that AIATSIS is struggling to protect its precious archives, mining companies around Australia spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on cultural heritage surveys for compliance purposes. A single area may be surveyed many times, and the data that is collected is locked up in consultants’ reports, producing little, or no, new knowledge for the nation. Millions of dollars are spent each year, and no new histories are emerging from them.

While representatives of Australia’s leading mining companies have expressed a desire to divert funds used for repetitive or low-level compliance into substantive research programs, such a change would have to be facilitated by amendments to regulatory frameworks. However, there are strong economic and social imperatives for such change.  It would produce substantial economic benefits for the nation by assisting in streamlining compliance processes and bringing forward the investment pipeline. In addition, it would provide social and cultural benefits by producing new understandings of Australia’s unique cultural heritage.

Moreover, if some of the funds that are now wasted on repetitive compliance could be diverted to research purposes Australia would receive a great boon. There would be additional funds for ARC linkage grants and new histories would emerge, with or without ARC funding. In a perfect world, a proportion of these funds would be diverted toward digitisation of the precious AIATSIS repository.

Claire Smith is professor of archaeology at Flinders University.
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