Vetoed research too ‘challenging’ for minister: UNSW research director

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The University of New South Wales’ research director has slammed the latest vetoing of research funding, saying the minister responsible did not even understand the projects he blocked on national interest grounds and is sending a message to academics to avoid areas the government may find too “challenging”.

The University of Melbourne’s deputy vice chancellor research has also questioned the intervention, joining widespread criticism across the academic community.

Acting Education minister Stuart Robert intervened late last year to block six humanities projects from receiving funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project.

The funding agency had recommended the six project receive funding following a peer review process known to be rigorous and to account for national benefits of the research.

But Mr Robert rejected the recommendation for the six projects, which focused on either China, climate or religion and literature, claiming they would not “contribute to the national interest”.

UNSW professor Nicholas Fisk. Image: UNSW

According to several people who have been involved in past ARC Discovery Project assessment processes, the minister will review hundreds of recommended research projects based on their title and a brief national interest statement but will not review the full applications, which are typically 50 to 100 pages long and have already been endorsed by experts in the specific field of research.

UNSW deputy vice chancellor (research and enterprise) Professor Nicholas Fisk said he doubts an individual minister has the capacity to properly evaluate the projects, and his intervention to block some of them was undermining the review process.

“It is pretty well a direct assault on academic freedom and the integrity of the entire grants system,” Professor Fisk, a developmental biology and maternal-fetal medicine expert, told InnovationAus.

UNSW had one of its researcher’s grants for a study on contemporary Chinese political and cultural development vetoed by Mr Robert last month and has had funding for three other humanities projects blocked in 2018 by then-education minister Simon Birmingham, who vetoed 11 humanities and arts projects worth $4.2 million.

The message to researchers, Professor Fisk said, is not necessarily don’t apply for humanities projects – many other humanities projects were not blocked – but to steer clear of certain work the government may find “challenging”.

“Previously it was cultural history and gender [studies] they didn’t understand. But now China, climate or perhaps religion here,” Professor Fisk said.

“That is difficult to predict, and when grants are vetoed, applicants do not receive explanations why, including exactly how their work failed the minister’s interpretation of the national interest.

“Is it don’t study China? Is it don’t study religion? Is it don’t study climate change? Well, there are other grants in those things approved, so which bit of it is that they don’t think is in the national interest or is value for money.”

There is no requirement for a minister to explain their vetoes and the current acting education minister has declined to explain his decision beyond his initial comment that they “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.

Professor Fisk said the lack of explanation for vetoes is putting researchers in a tough spot, needing to second guess both who will be the minister – applications are often prepared a year in advance – as well as “what the government’s political foibles will be at the time”.

“These people spend months working on these grant applications and finessing them often over several years because you often don’t get up until the second or third year, with only a 19 per cent success rate,” he said.

University of Melbourne deputy vice chancellor, research, Professor James McCluskey said independence and integrity of the peer review recommendation process needed to be respected.

“These judgements, made by experts and guided by established, rigorous systems of extensive review, are also the most reliable means for assessing the benefits and social impact of research,” Professor McCluskey told InnovationAus.

“It is critical that experts advise on the merits and integrity of Australian research with the political system remaining at arm’s length from specific project decisions, but setting the broad strategic goals of publicly funded research.”

Hundreds of other academics have criticised the latest intervention, with several groups also calling for the minister’s power to be removed.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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