The Australian Research Council and Education department have backed the ministerial intervention powers that overturn their peer-reviewed grant recommendations, claiming the latest backlash stems from a “communication” problem.
On Wednesday evening, officials from the department and the agency gave evidence to a Senate inquiry examining legislation that would remove the minister’s power to reject Australian Research Council (ARC) recommendations for funding.
It has been exercised 32 times in history and mainly to block humanities and social sciences work, triggering accusations of political interference. Submissions to the current inquiry from universities, academics, and research groups overwhelmingly support removing the power, after the latest round of vetoes in late December reignited the issue.
But ARC interim chief executive Judith Zielke and Department of Education group manager Dom English backed the power at the inquiry as an appropriate protection of public investments. They added that the latest backlash comes from a failure of “communication” on how approvals work rather than a more fundamental problem with the $800 million funding scheme.
On Christmas Eve last year acting Education minister Stuart Robert rejected six humanities research projects which had been recommended for funding by the ARC after a rigorous peer review process.
Mr Robert did not approve the recommendations because he said they failed to demonstrate value for money and were not in the national interest. He has declined to provide detailed reasoning.
The intervention – rare in the ARC funding scheme but part of an increase since 2018 by Coalition ministers – generated unprecedented backlash from the academic community in Australia and overseas.
Critics said the ministerial intervention in research funding decisions is an outlier in advanced nations and undermines the Haldane principle of research funding decisions being free from political interference, putting Australia in poor company and diminishing its research reputation.
But Ms Zielke said it was entirely appropriate and necessary for a minister to be able reject the independent recommendations based on their own interpretation of value for public money.
“Not only must the research we fund be the very best research but the ARC and the minister — the individual with overall responsibility for expenditure of public money — must be satisfied that every grant funded really is the best use of that public money,” she told the inquiry.
Ms Zielke acknowledged the ARC’s assessment process had value for money considerations built in to various stages of an application’s progression, but declined to say if this meant the minister is contradicting the agency’s advice when they reject projects on value grounds.
Greens senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi, whose bill to remove the power is being examined by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, said the support for removing the power had been overwhelming.
Of the 80 submissions to the inquiry, only the ARC, Education department and right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs had endorsed not changing the veto power, according to the Greens senator.
“Everyone else is either very supportive [of the bill] or thinks that there is a problem with the veto,” Dr Faruqi said.
“Because it is damaging our reputation, it is damaging researchers, it is damaging academics.”
Education ministers have not approved ARC funding recommendations for 32 research projects dating back to 2004 and 2005 when then-minister Brendan Nelson blocked 10 discovery and linkage projects.
No other recommendations were rejected until 2017 when Simon Birmingham did not approve three recommended Discovery Early Career Researcher awards and six more Discovery projects. A year later Mr Birmingham also blocked two Future Fellowship applications recommended by the ARC.
In 2020, Dan Tehan did not approve five Discovery projects on national security grounds. Mr Robert blocked six Discovery projects late last year, triggering the latest debate.
Of the 32 instances of minister going against ARC recommendations, all have been by the Coalition and 27 have been for projects in humanities and social sciences.
But Ms Zielke said she had difficulty understanding why the interventions are perceived as an abuse of the peer review system because she is not aware of any Commonwealth grant program without ministerial intervention.
“I’ve been therefore caught by the fact that we don’t appear to communicate the full process that we use well,” she said.
The ARC interim CEO said universities had a “high level” understanding of the grant processes but individual researchers “don’t understand that there is a separation” between the agency recommendations and the minister approving grants.
“I do think that there is a lack of understanding of exactly what’s being undertaken,” Ms Zielke said.
Ms Zielke was appointed to oversee the ARC by the acting minister Mr Robert last month when the previous chief executive stood down early just before the vetoes were revealed and as the Coalition issued new “expectations” for the agency.
The interim chief executive will lead the ARC consultations next month to “improve the way that the national interest is articulated and also assessed”.
“My aim is that this consultation will improve transparency for the sector and provide ministers with confidence that they are executing all funds in the national interest,” Ms Zielke told the inquiry.
Education department group manager Dom English said Australia’s research system and funding schemes were generally working very well and delivering world leading results, despite recent backlash.
“We have always had in both ARC and other research schemes, ultimately, ministerial accountability for the decisions made to grant research applications,” he told the inquiry
“So I think there’s a balance of stakeholder view and in data that I would certainly take into account when I’m advising governments.”
Labor has committed to approving any ARC recommended projects should it win the next election, and has suggested ministers should be required to explain any veto to Parliament in detail. But the Opposition has stopped short of legislating to remove the power altogether.
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