‘Next level manipulation’: Coalition accused of politicising research funding

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

University researchers involved in complex year-long bids to secure long-term government co-funding have complained that they were informed of the outcome of their bid through an election campaign press release issued by the Coalition.

Science and Technology Minister Melissa Price has approved large funding grants for three Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) and informed bid leaders in early April, under an embargo.

But public announcements were not made for another month, during the election campaign, using Coalition media releases that link the funding made through the CRC program to the Morrison government.

The statements describe the 32-year-old CRC program as “the Morrison Government’s” and include Liberal and National party branding and campaign slogans about a “strong economy and a stronger future”.

With caretaker conventions preventing new announcements by the Commonwealth, some of the researchers involved first heard of the fate of their proposals from the campaign releases shared with them by bid leads.

$32 million was shared between 13 CRC projects during the 12th round of funding

The language in them has angered one researcher involved in a successful CRC bid, who told InnovationAus.com it was “next-level manipulation of public research funding for political point scoring”.

The use of federal funding from the long running CRC program to “drip feed” “campaign announcements” is deceptive, the researcher said.

“It’s not new money that the Liberal Party is proposing to add to future budgets, but they’re insinuating that it is. When they’re in caretaker mode they shouldn’t be making announcements of government programs in this way.”

The researcher spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution in future research funding which requires ministerial approval.

The third and final CRC from the current round is expected to be announced before Saturday and some in the research community believe its announcement is being used to support the National Party’s campaign.

The CRC program was created by the Hawke government in 1990 to create industry-led research programs. Several of the research projects have produced breakthrough science and technology and the program is credited with generating tens of billions of dollars in net economic benefit.

The program was targeted for large cuts when the Coalition came to power in 2013 but has more recently enjoyed steady funding and bipartisan support. The Morrison government resisted calls from the peak CRC group this year to increase funding to the program.

Successful CRCs receive large federal government grants to support medium to long term industry-led collaborative research, for up to 10 years. Competition is high for the grants and the application and assessment process typically takes over one year.

Bids require at least one Australian research organisation and industry partner, which often commit tens of millions of dollars to CRC proposals.

After a two-stage assessment process, a shortlist of proposed CRCs are interviewed by the CRC Advisory Committee, which then makes recommendations to the minister, who makes a final approval

In the current Round 23 of the CRC program, these final stages occurred in March, a decision was made in early April and the announcements were scheduled for May.

This timeframe has put announcements in the election campaign and so far, two of the three successful bids have been announced with a Coalition press release.

Earlier this month, the Solving Antimicrobial Resistance in Agribusiness, Food and Environments was announced with a Coalition Campaign HQ media release as the first Round 23 CRC recipient with a grant of $34.5 million. A week later the The Sovereign Manufacturing Automation for Composites CRC was announced in a similar Coalition release trumpeting a $69.9 million Commonwealth contribution.

Outside of election periods the announcements are made with a ministerial statement and updates to government websites, often with all the successful CRCs announced at once, as occurred last year.

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which provides advice on caretaker conventions, referred questions about funding announcements during caretaker to the Industry department, which is responsible for the CRC program.

A spokesperson for the Industry department confirmed Minister Price made decisions on the latest CRC round prior to commencement of caretaker, but did not directly answer questions on a potential breach of caretaker conventions around the Coalition’s announcements.

Last year, all three successful CRC bids were announced at once in late June by then-Industry minister Christian Porter through a government release.

In 2020, five successful CRCs were announced in three government releases, all within 10 days of one another in March.

In 2019, the last election year, the announcements were split up, with two made officially in the fortnight before the election was called, and two more via the Liberal Party during the campaign.

The timing of CRC announcements could be improved, according to Jane O’Dwyer, the chief executive of Cooperative Research Australia, the peak group representing CRC research organisations and industry partners.

Ms O’Dwyer declined to comment on the language used in the latest Coalition announcements but said it is “unfortunate timing” to have to announce CRCs during the campaign via party press releases. However, it was not unusual, and waiting until after caretaker could cause unneeded delays.”

“At the end of the day, as long as all of them are announced and we know we’ve got bipartisan support for the CRC program, it’s still confirming that these centres are supported and funded, which is really important,” she told InnovationAus.com.

“I think the alternative would be to wait till after the election, and I don’t think that that was ideal for the bids. They are waiting to see they got up to get started on the process of standing up [the CRC] and that’s a huge, huge exercise.

“Or if they didn’t get up, most bids will go back for another round. And so there’s a lot of work that then goes on from there.”

After the next government is decided, Ms O’Dwyer said Cooperative Research Australia was looking forward to discussing the CRC program with the next minister and the department, where more funding and a “set cycle” for announcements would be on the agenda.

An announcement on the final successful CRC of the current round is expected to be revealed by the Coalition before Saturday’s federal election.

Based on the allotted funding for the CRC Round 23 and what remains after the two announcements, the remaining funds precisely fit the amount reportedly requested by the proposed One Basin CRC

The University of Melbourne-led One Basin CRC is focused on developing solutions for threats in the Murray-Darling Basin, an area of importance for the National Party.

The Coalition Campaign HQ was contacted for comment about CRC announcements.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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