‘Peer review over politics’: Unis and scientists want research veto power scrapped

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Australia’s peak science and technology body has joined university groups and unions in calling for the removal of ministerial veto powers over research funding, warning it is out of step with global practice and opens the funding process up to politicisation.

It follows backlash to acting Education minister Stuart Robert’s intervention late last year to block funding of six humanities projects which had been recommended by independent experts through a peer review process.

STA president professor Mark Hutchinson. Image: STA

In an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Science and Technology Australia (STA) president Professor Mark Hutchinson said there was “no need” for a ministerial veto power over projects endorsed by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and its college of experts.

“The peer review process that is in place for the ARC grant selection already whittles away over 90 per cent of the grants that are submitted. We are ensured that the grants that are selected for funding are the best research ideas possible,” Professor Hutchinson said.

“So we absolutely should choose peer review over politics.”

Professor Hutchinson and the STA have joined the research union, peak bodies Universities Australia and the Group of Eight, along with dozens of individual academics and institutions, in calling for the veto powers to be removed.

The stakeholders have made submissions to a Senate inquiry into the veto power, which comes after Stuart Robert’s intervention on Christmas Eve last year. It is the third time the power has been used, all by Coalition ministers to block humanities and arts projects on national interest grounds.

Then-Education minister Dan Tehan also blocked five ARC grants in 2020, citing national security concerns.

The latest incident by Mr Robert was quickly branded as political interference and has attracted unprecedented backlash, with denouncements from eminent academics, the ARC’s college of experts, and global research groups.

Both Universities Australia and the Group of Eight – together representing the largest and most research heavy universities – have called for the power to be removed in submissions to the inquiry, while the National Tertiary Union said scrapping the power would be the first step in stopping funding being used as a “political tool”.

“The narrowing of research focus, while it may be politically convenient for Government, will undoubtedly forgo research in areas that later will produce vital breakthroughs,” the union warned in its submission to the inquiry.

The Opposition has also lashed the Coalition’s interference in research funding decisions but has stopped short of committing to removing the veto power. Labor says it won’t block any legitimate ARC recommended grants and ministers should be required to explain their decisions in parliament, but has no plans to legislate to remove the power.

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