Senate to probe Australian Research Council grant vetoes

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

A parliamentary inquiry will examine the power of ministers to veto research funding after the Greens successfully referred their bill seeking to the remove the power to the Senate education committee.

It follows the widely criticised intervention of acting Education minister Stuart Robert last year to block funding for six humanities research projects which had already been independently endorsed by experts through a peer review process.

The inquiry will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to explain their opposition to the power after several interventions by Coalition ministers in recent years to block funding they deemed not in the national interest.

A Senate committee will examine the power of minister’s to veto research funding by examining Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi’s bill

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi on Wednesday successfully moved a motion to have her 2018 Ensuring Research Independence bill examined by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee.

The bill amends the Australian Research Council Act to remove the minister’s discretion to approve a research proposal recommended by the Australian Research Council by requiring the minister to approve recommended proposals and associated expenditure.

“I look forward to hearing from universities and researchers,” Ms Faruqi tweeted shortly after receiving support in the Senate.

“It’s beyond time we removed political interference in research funding.”

The Greens Senator initially introduced the bill in 2018 following then-Education minister Simon Birmingham’s intervention to block 11 humanities and arts projects. The bill lapsed at the end of last parliament and was restored in 2019 but has never been brought on for debate.

“No Minister should be able to dictate which research projects get funded and which ones don’t,” Ms Faruqi said at the time.

“The true test of academic freedom is that it must be free from political interference, no matter who is in Government. It should be based only on an independent rigorous assessment process.”

The latest intervention by acting Education minister on Christmas Eve has attracted even more criticism and has been condemned across the academic community.

Robert justified his veto by claiming the six projects “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.

Labor has called for any minister blocking project funding to be required to explain the decision in Parliament but has stopped short of committing to removing the power.

This led Australian National University vice-chancellor and Nobel Prize recipient Brian Schmidt to declare “political interference has bipartisan support” this week.

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