Unis seek explanation of research grant ‘politicisation’

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Australian universities are demanding an explanation from acting Education minister Stuart Robert about his decision to veto funding for six research projects late last year, as backlash to the politicisation of research funding grows.

On Christmas Eve Mr Robert revealed he had blocked six humanities research projects from receiving funding from the independent Australian Research Council (ARC), claiming the projects did not demonstrate “value for money” or satisfy the National Interest Test introduced by the Coalition in 2018.

Four of the six vetoed projects related to either China or climate change. Another sought to explain religion’s representation in science fiction and fantasy novels, while the other examined the relationship between English literature and the far right.

The ministerial veto came after the six projects had been approved by the ARC through a rigorous peer review process by its College of Experts, some of which later resigned in protest over the interference.

The decision capped off an unprecedented delay to announcing the recipients of more than $250 million in grants from the ARC’s Discovery Projects scheme.

Universities want an explanation from the acting education minister about his decision to veto six research grants

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight – representing Australian universities responsible for around 70 per cent of Australian university research – said the vetoes “could mark the politicisation of Australia’s world-class research and set a dangerous precedent”.

“The recent approval process for the ARC Discovery grants was plagued with controversy – the unprecedented delay in the approval of the grants along with the timing of the announcement on Christmas Eve, have all contributed to a growing unease in Australia’s research community,” she said.

“The Go8 will be seeking an explanation as to why grant applications that have passed through the rigorous review process and met the required conditions were rejected.”

Ms Thomson said the Go8 will also seek a commitment that any future applications that meet the criteria and are approved by the ARC will not be “subject to political interference”.

Peak group Universities Australia is also seeking an explanation from the government about the “very concerning” intervention by Mr Robert, who took responsibility for the Education portfolio last month.

“These projects were recommended to the Minister under internationally accepted research review processes,” Universities Australia acting chief executive Peter Chesworth told InnovationAus.

“We continue to pursue the issue with stakeholders, including the Minister.”

Some members of the ARC’s College of Experts, which review applications and make recommendations for funding, said they had resigned in protest about the intervention.

Western Sydney University Professor of Mathematics Andrew Francis said he was resigning from the College of Experts a few days earlier than planned as a symbolic gesture, after more than four years as a member.

“I think all researchers across Australia are disgusted by what this has come to, and wondering in despair about what they can do about it,” Professor Francis wrote in his resignation letter, which he shared on Twitter.

“It is bad enough that the application process is so arduous, has such low chances of success, and takes so long, but this entrance yet again of politics into such decisions, through the superfluous National Interest Test, is galling.”

The Australian Academy of Science issued a statement saying the political interference is eroding Australian research’s reputation and integrity.

“In exchange for responsible and socially conscious conduct in research, researchers and their peers should be free to pursue lines of enquiry that are considered meaningful and important,” Academy president Professor John Shine said.

“Indeed, researchers are trained to identify problems or gaps in our knowledge and determine the best and most rigorous way to learn more and to understand better the world around us.

“Much of the value provided by research to policy makers and the public is due to its unbiased and independent nature, not its perceived conformity with the personal views of the minister of the moment.”

The incident has also attracted international condemnation, with former president of the European Research Council Jean-Pierre Bourguignon saying it would “very negatively” impact Australia’s reputation and ability to attract foreign researchers, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also told the publication the interference was “consistent with the Morrison government’s politically partisan, professionally immature, neo-McCarthyist approach to any Australian seeking to learn more about the precise nature of China challenge”.

A petition condemning the interference has now been signed by more than 1,400 academics and experts from around the world, while an open letter objecting to the vetoes signed by ARC laureate fellows will reportedly be published on Tuesday.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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