A bipartisan Senate committee has rejected a bill that would strip the Education minister of research funding veto powers, despite widespread community support and an unprecedented backlash to the latest use of the powers.
Despite rejecting the scrapping of the vetoing, an independent review of the Australian Research Council (ARC) at the centre of the latest furore and responsible for more than $800 million in research funding has been recommended. It should include the government’s latest attempt to reform the agency’s governance structures, according to the Committee.
The Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment on Monday released a final report into the Greens’ Ensuring Research Independence bill. It would amend legislation to remove the Education minister’s ability to unilaterally reject research funding which has been recommended by the ARC after its peer review process.
The inquiry was launched in the wake of acting Education minister Stuart Robert’s decision to reject $1.38 million in funding for six humanities projects the ARC had recommended late last year.
The minister did so on the grounds that the projects would not contribute to the “national interest” and would be a waste of public funds, contrary to the recommendations the ARC made after a rigorous peer review process.
The decision attracted widespread criticism from the Australian and international research community, with dozens of stakeholders telling the inquiry the veto power was damaging the funding process, the wider sector, and Australia’s reputation.
The ARC and Department of Education told the inquiry the veto powers are appropriate and used across government grant processes, blaming backlash to their use in research funding on poor communication from the agency leading to researchers not understanding how the process works.
The Senate Committee recommended not passing the bill, endorsing the retention of the Minister’s veto power.
“[T]he committee agrees with the view that requiring the Minister to ‘rubber stamp’ projects recommended by the ARC chief executive officer would essentially override the basic principle of responsible government,” the Committee said in its final report.
The power is necessary for the minister to fulfil their obligations under accountability and governance laws, and to be able to block projects where there are due diligence or national security concerns, “particularly as the ARC is unlikely to have access to all the information available to the minister”, the Committee said.
The ARC Act which allows the ministerial intervention has served the national interest well “on balance”, the committee said, pointing to the 99 per cent of ARC recommended Discovery projects which have been funded since 2001.
The Committee recommended the bill not be passed but acknowledged legitimate concerns about the ARC and its governance, noting “elements” of the underlying legislation may no longer be fit for purpose.
An independent review of the ARC should be undertaken and include its governance and research funding processes “with a view to maximising the impact of public investment in university research and driving a strong national system of research and development.
“The review should also have regard to the directions issued to the ARC by the Minister for Education and Youth in his Letter of Expectations dated 6 December 2021,” the report said.
The Committee was chaired by Nationals Senator Matt Canavan and made up entirely of Coalition and Labor Senators with the exception of Greens Senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi.
Dr Faruqi, a former professional engineer and academic, introduced the bill to Parliament several years ago, and had it referred to the standing committee earlier this year during the controversy surrounding Stuart Robert’s intervention.
On Monday she labelled fellow committee members’ majority recommendation not to pass it “insulting” to the research sector, and claimed the final report “sidelines” overwhelming evidence of the harms of the veto power.
“This is a shameless attempt to retain unnecessary power over research funding despite enormous evidence provided about the harm that it does to our research and researchers,” Senator Faruqi said.
“The Government and Labor’s contribution to this inquiry has been nothing short of insulting to the dozens of universities, researchers and peak bodies who provided evidence for the need to remove the veto power.”
In her dissenting report, Senator Faruqi recommended the Senate pass her bill and supported a review of the ARC with terms of reference more focused on better engagement and outcomes for researchers.
In additional comment, Labor senators said “the Coalition Government’s use of ministerial veto has eroded both domestic and international trust in Australia’s research sector” but would not support removing the minister’s power altogether.
The Opposition said the bill would effectively shift the veto power to the ARC chief executive and weaken Parliament’s oversight of the funding process.
“The Bill therefore fails to afford the protection from rogue intervention that the sector seeks,” Labor Senators Kim Carr, Louise Pratt amd Deborah O’Neill wrote.
The Labor Senators recommended the government amend the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to require the responsible minister to table, in Parliament, within 15 sitting days, the “reasons, evidence and advice received when discretion is exercised to veto an Australian Research Council recommended grant”.
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