Experts who recommended research grants condemn minister’s veto

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The experts who recommended funding for research projects that were later blocked by the acting Education minister late last year have condemned the intervention, warning it “undermines” the independent assessment process and weakens public trust.

On Wednesday an open letter signed by 139 current and former members of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) College of Experts was published denouncing the vetoing of research funding by acting Education minister Stuart Robert.

On Christmas Eve last year Mr Robert revealed he had blocked six humanities research projects from receiving funding from the ARC despite them having been recommended by the funding agency and the College of Experts, which assesses individual applications.

Stuart Robert
Stuart Robert blocked six humanities research projects from receiving funding on Christmas Eve

The six proposed projects had satisfied the College of Experts’ peer review process, which includes an assessment of their value for money and their benefit to Australia, putting them in the 19 per cent of applications recommended by the ARC for funding. But their funding was vetoed by the minister, who claimed the projects “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.

The minister’s intervention – which is not possible in comparable nations – has been widely criticised as political interference by the academic community, including Australia’s most eminent researchers and international research organisations.

An open letter by members of the ARC College of Experts published Wednesday said the six projects had satisfied a “rigorous, multi-stage selection process” and the ministerial decision to override the recommendations for funding “undermines this process”.

“Such interventions compromise the integrity of the research funding system, weaken public trust in the ARC, and threaten to damage Australia’s international reputation. At least two members of the College have already resigned in protest, and the incident has already attracted international concern,” the letter said.

The experts warned the intervention by ministers to block research funding is becoming “commonplace” in Australia after former Coalition government Education ministers Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan blocked funding in 2018.

“We urge that the government adopt standards in line with the Haldane Principle, which holds that, while governments need to establish funding guidelines, decisions on individual research proposals are best made through independent peer review, and government ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded,” the College of Experts’ letter said.

“In the absence of such commitments in Australia, we cannot safeguard the independence and legitimacy of the Australian Research Council’s decisions.”

The letter calls for the federal government to legislate amendments to “prevent political interference in research grants” and for the end of the use of the national interest test by ministers to unilaterally reject funding, while continuing to require senior research expertise of all members admitted to the ARC College of Experts.

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