Ministerial vetoes of research grants and a “dossier” of applicants’ potential foreign influence are putting Australian academics’ reputations at risk and threatening the integrity of the national research funding agency, Labor senator Kim Carr has warned.
The Opposition is pushing for greater transparency of the increased involvement by ministers and security agencies in research funding decisions, amid warnings from the research sector that procedural fairness and transparency is being damaged under a grant approval process yet to be formalised or clearly explained to academics.
Senator Carr says the Australian Research Council (ARC), which is responsible for $800 million in grants each year, is at risk of politicisation following revelations agency is collecting “sensitivities” on academics when they apply.
It stems from concerns about the influence of China on international researchers, which Senator Carr says originated in the US but has been quickly adopted by parts of government in a “new cold-war” against the rising power, which is being fed by “lurid” News Corp media reports.
“These sensitivities dossiers are being produced now as a result of what I think is a pretty poor response from the Australian Research Council to a political campaign,” Mr Carr told InnovationAus.
“So the ARC has lost sight of its fundamental role to provide impartial expert advice on the quality grants to be funded by the Australian government.”
In 2018, then-Education Minister Dan Tehan introduced a National Interest Test for ARC grants as one of his first moves in the portfolio.
The test requires applicants to include a statement outlining “the extent to which the research contributes to Australia’s national interest through its potential to have economic, commercial, environmental, social or cultural benefits to the Australian community”.
Applicants must meet this definition of national interest in addition to the normal competitive grant requirements. The ARC chief executive makes an assessment of whether the national interest test has been met in recommending grants.
But the minister can also make their own assessment of the National Interest Test in their final determinations, giving them another discretion in approving or rejecting grants.
In August last year, The Australian reported “widespread infiltration of Australia’s universities by the Chinese Communist Party” following the newspaper’s investigation of Australian academics’ links to Chinese institutions.
The newspaper published the names of dozens of researchers alleged to be working with Chinese organisations, in some cases without the knowledge of their Australian institutions and with the condition work be patented in China.
The report sparked a parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference in higher education and the ARC has confirmed it tightened its own internal processes to assess foreign interference within weeks.
In a subsequent ARC round late last year Mr Tehan approved 651 grants, but reserved his decision on 18 more “pending further advice to the ARC from security agencies”.
It has since been revealed none of the applicants recommended for grants by the ARC were of concern to national security agencies at the time, and the ARC had no formal procedures in place to determine foreign interference risk.
The research institutions that had been recommended for grants by the ARC but blocked by Mr Tehan were given only around one week to respond, according to the agency, which is also yet to develop formal guidelines for procedural fairness around suspected foreign interference.
Mr Tehan would eventually clear 13 applications but block five altogether, reportedly on national security grounds. It took nearly two weeks to then inform the researchers who had been blocked, in what was one of Mr Tehan’s final acts in the portfolio before a Cabinet reshuffle sent him to the Trade portfolio.
Under Senate Estimates questioning by Labor last month, the ARC confirmed it has been collecting “sensitivities” about grant applicants and research institutions, and passes the information on to the minister when it recommends grants.
The ARC declined to release its correspondence with the five blocked applicants’ universities because of the risk it would pose to their reputations and the national interest. But the Australian has reported the vetoes were made because of concerns with China links.
The “sensitivities” being collected by the ARC are based on public domain information including media reports and links to Chinese institutions listed on a database compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
The ASPI tracker project, which also receives funding from the US Department of State, is marketed as a way for businesses, universities, scholars and governments to “conduct due diligence as they engage with entities from China”. But it carries a disclaimer the listed institutions may not reflect the full nature of a security risk.
The ARC confirmed it has been using the tracker since July last year, and Mr Carr said it is clear it has become a major factor in grant approvals, despite no other substantiated evidence of security risks.
More than a year later the ARC is yet to implement formal internal processes for managing foreign interference risks in grant applications or to develop guidelines to ensure natural justice and procedural fairness is afforded to applicant.
The ARC, which assesses the merit of applications for research grants, has been co-opted into a smear campaign that questions the integrity and loyalty of reputable academics. Seems we can no longer say that McCarthyism ended with the Cold War. #research #highereducation pic.twitter.com/7qK75z5qTr
— Kim Carr (@SenKimCarr) August 4, 2021
Mr Carr, a former Labor government minister for higher education who has himself administered ARC grants in the past, said relying on ASPI’s list is problematic and risks politicising the non-partisan body, which now requires “very close scrutiny”.
“I’m yet to identify that this has been a direction from the minister [to collect sensitivities],” Mr Carr said.
“This was initiated by the Australian Research Council because they felt under pressure by a media campaign run by some cold war warriors.”
The ARC was set up as a non-partisan body to administer $800 million in grants each year. More than three quarters of the grants it awards are for work involving international collaboration.
Between 2016 and 2020, 57 grants were recovered by the agency for guideline breaches, but none were for national security reasons, according to the ARC.
It has also not received any notifications of a research institute breaching the Defence Trade Controls Act — 2012 legislation that places strict restrictions on researchers’ distribution and sharing of work on defence technologies.
The ARC declined to answer specific questions on its confidence in internal processes and transparency with grant applicants but said it has a legislated requirement to ensure outcomes of research funded by the ARC are retained for the benefit of Australia.
A spokesperson for the agency said it uses information provided by researchers to assist universities in countering foreign interference and for the ARC “to undertake due diligence to ensure the integrity of publicly funded research”.
“There are no secret files held on researchers,” a spokesperson for the ARC told InnovationAus.
“As part of applying for an ARC grant, researchers are required to provide a range of information about overseas funding, overseas affiliations or membership of overseas political parties.
“All information held by the ARC is held in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988.”
The research sector is concerned with any approach that could further cloud the grants application process or deny applicants procedural fairness.
“We have consistently held the position that researchers need to know what criteria they are being judged against when applying for public funding through the ARC,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said.
“It is fundamentally important that processes for deciding on grant allocations are robust, merit-based and transparent,” she told InnovationAus.
Science & Technology Australia President Jeremy Brownlie said scientists and researchers would rightly expect an opportunity to clarify concerns before a final decision was made on a grant application recommended for funding by the top experts in the field.
“That’s just an expectation of basic procedural fairness,” Associate Professor Brownlie said.
“If new criteria are being applied to reject research grants, then it’s fair enough for researchers to be told what those criteria are and how those judgements are being made.”
Associate Professor Brownlie said it is important to remember by the time grants reach the stage of final Ministerial approval, the projects have been ranked as “the very best research by the nation’s top experts in that field”.
“And people’s livelihoods can depend on these decisions – to pay the rent, feed their families, and have a job next month or next year,” he told InnovationAus.
“It’s important always to be diligent about national security interests, but it’s also important to have transparency and procedural fairness in our competitive research granting schemes so we don’t see our best researchers miss out on their livelihoods based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.”
Asked why the five applications were blocked and if he was satisfied with the ARC processes, Mr Tehan’s office referred InnovationAus to his original statement in November when he reserved his decision on unexplained security grounds.
“How has it come to this?” Mr Carr asked the Senate last week.
“Hunting spies and traitors is not the Australian Research Council’s job, and its willingness to dabble in that role can only contribute further to the baseless smearing of distinguished academics, many with global reputations, that has become such a repellent feature of recent news reporting.”
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