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Get the politics out of Australian research funding decisions

Image: JJ Harrison [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Australian Senate should back legislation to end research vetoes, says Nick Bisley

The rest of the world keeps politicians out of research funding decisions. It is time that Australia followed the global standard, where expert assessment decides the allocation of funding, except in the most sensitive areas of national security.

The Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee has recommended the government pass amendments to the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) bill, which is currently in the Senate.

Among several other changes, the amended bill would remove ministers’ powers to veto funding for individual research projects, except on national security grounds. This would limit politicians’ ability to use humanities research as a political football.

Denigrating Australian Research Council-approved individual research projects in the humanities and vetoing funding has happened repeatedly under federal Coalition governments. In fact, since 2004, Coalition ministers have vetoed 32 individual grant projects. Almost every single one has been in the humanities.

The ARC Review, conducted by Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Shiel AO, advised that the global gold standard is that assessments of individual proposals must be based on expert review, free of political interference.

“In every iteration, ministerial interventions have drawn international attention, and placed at threat the capacity of Australian researchers to form research links with international university and industry collaborators,” the review stated. “The practice of over-riding expert advice is anathema to the world’s best practice.”

Lack of understanding

The bill has received widespread support from across the sector, yet the Coalition has indicated it will oppose passage of the legislation.

A major concern of Coalition senators is that the bill proposes to remove ministerial discretion or intervention in relation to grant funding decisions under the National Competitive Grants Program. Coalition spokesperson Paul Fletcher has previously asked Australians to draw their own conclusions about the value of three vetoed projects based on their titles alone.

His intoning of a project’s name as proof enough that it is unworthy of funding suggests an ignorance of scholarly research and a lack of any sense as to what world standards are in the way research funding is awarded.

Senator Amanda Stoker’s comments to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee in 2022 are also revealing. “We are very happy to stand by the decision to reject a research project on how climate shaped the Elizabethan theatre,” Stoker said. “Presumably, it’s something about how the theatre might have needed a roof or something.”

Former education minister Simon Birmingham’s Tweet in 2018 is also revealing. “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post Orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’.”

But just imagine a world where only science, manufacturing, agriculture and information technology received publicly funded research. As if the cultural, social and historical context in which science, technology and production occurred didn’t matter at all.

Australians don’t want to live in a country where the ethics of artificial intelligence are not prioritised, in a democracy devoid of truth or accountability, or a world where we have not learned the lessons of history and do not understand the culture, language or traditions of our nearest neighbours.

‘Cheap tactics’

ARC-funded research in the humanities and every other discipline undergoes a national interest test, and Australia’s national interest is not served through funding manufacturing and agricultural research alone.

Federal education minister Jason Clare has said that “over the last decade, the ARC has been bedevilled by political interference and ministerial delays, which is “not good for our universities [and] not good for businesses either [that] work with our universities”.

The ARC Review panel, hundreds of stakeholders who have made submissions, thousands of signatories to several statements and letters, national institutions, universities, sector leaders and members of the international community agree vetoes must go.

It is time the Coalition stopped employing cheap tactics to discredit research grant proposals that have been rigorously assessed and tested. If they are to be taken seriously, they need to understand the independent nature of scholarly research and the practices recognised around the world as to the best way of funding that work.

Cheap point-scoring demeans us all. It is critical this legislation passes and the way is cleared for a research funding process that is at the same world standard as the work it supports.

Nick Bisley is president of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. He is also the dean and head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of international relations at La Trobe University.