Ministers vetoing research grants are an “existential threat” to local universities, the Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt has warned, as The Greens seek a Senate inquiry into the latest incident.
In his 2022 State of the University address on Monday, Professor Schmidt called for a review of the Australian Research Council as part of an apolitical system of funding, following government intervention late last year to block independently approved projects from receiving funding.
It follows similar incidents by Coalition ministers in 2006, 2018 and 2020. The latest vetoes of six humanities projects was revealed on Christmas Eve by acting Education Minister Stuart Robert and attracted swift and widespread criticism.
Professor Schmidt, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of dark energy, was critical of the decision when it was revealed and remains concerned, including Labor’s reluctance to commit to removing the veto power.
“Of the four known occurrences of political interference, three have occurred in the last three years – and as things stand, both major parties agree it is appropriate for the minister to wield this power. Political interference has bipartisan support,” Professor Schmidt said.
“I see this as an existential threat to Australian universities. My strong view, a view held by many university leaders, whether they say it out loud or not, is Australia needs an apolitical system to allocate research funding like all other countries similar to us have, and a review of the Australian Research Council and its governance.”
Professor Schmidt said the interference can “corrupt knowledge and slow down its creation”, and academic freedom must be maintained to “pursue ideas across a broad spectrum of possibilities”.
“We don’t just focus on what is known or thought relevant or acceptable at the time,” he said.
“After all, what would our society be like when the study of history, politics and literature has to reflect the views of the minister of the day?”
The ANU leader’s condemnation comes more than a month after the news of Mr Robert’s intervention, with the issue still being criticised and the minister declining to expand on the reasoning behind his decision, except to say the projects “didn’t stack up” and the Parliament had legislated a responsibility to scrutinise them.
Labor has criticised the intervention, including calling for a ministers to be forced to explain their vetos in Parliament, but has stopped short of committing to repeal the power.
Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi said she will this week move to establish a Senate inquiry into her unsuccessful private members bill from 2018, introduced after then-Education Minister Simon Birmingham blocked 11 arts and humanities projects from receiving funding.
The bill would remove ministerial discretion from approving or rejecting research grants recommended and administered by the Australian Research Council.
“Hearing directly from university communities and researchers would force the Senate to confront the real-world, damaging impact the ministerial veto power has had,” Ms Faruqi tweeted on Monday.
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