Australian Senate committee to scrutinise grant veto powers

Furore over political interference shows no sign of abating, as government presses ahead with research commercialisation agenda

二月 9, 2022
Australian coat of arms in the Senate Chamber in Parliament House, Canberra, ACT, Australia
Source: iStock

Australia’s Senate has commissioned an inquiry into politicians’ power to veto research grants, in the latest fallout from the pre-Christmas quashing of six humanities projects.

Parliament’s house of review has agreed to refer a Greens bill that would oblige the education minister to approve grant recommendations from the Australian Research Council (ARC), to a Senate committee that scrutinises education-related legislation.

The bill was introduced into the Senate in 2018 and remains on parliament’s books despite lapsing at the end of the last parliamentary term in mid-2019. That appears bound to happen again, with little prospect of any non-government bills being debated ahead of a looming federal election.

But the bill’s author, Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi, said a Senate inquiry would help keep the issue front of mind irrespective of the election’s result.

“There is no place for political interference in research funding and my bill would ensure that grants are allocated through the established rigorous processes. I’m really looking forward to hearing from universities and researchers on this critical issue. Frankly, for too long, their voices have been ignored.”

Dr Faruqi, a former academic, argues that there is no need for any minister to get involved in research funding at the individual grant level. She said other public bodies with grant-making responsibilities – notably the ARC’s sister agency, the National Health and Medical Research Council – operated without ministerial involvement in funding approvals.

Ministerial intervention in Australian research grants was rare before 2017. Since then, a succession of Coalition education ministers has disallowed 22 peer-reviewed grants on grounds of national interest, security concerns or value to taxpayers.

The escalating furore over the latest vetoes has coincided with rapid developments in the government’s efforts to imbue university research with a more commercial focus. The ARC has released more detail about three “industry fellowship” schemes to help scientists apply their research to “industry challenges”.

The three categories of competitive grant, which fall within the agency’s Linkage stream, will be available at early and mid-career stages and as “industry laureates” for established researchers with global profiles. The ARC says it has received additional funding to bankroll the fellowships, which start in July, and is developing guidelines and application procedures.

The new schemes were announced on 1 February by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who promised 800 fellowships over 10 years. The government’s University Research Commercialisation Action Plan, released the following day, said that the grants would “allow researchers to gain knowledge on how research is undertaken in an industry setting”.

Separately, the education department has published 38 new documents associated with its standardised intellectual property (IP) framework, which universities must adopt to qualify for public research grants. The framework is supposed to encourage deals between universities and industry by making IP arrangements less confusing, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses.

The new material includes 13 different agreement templates, together with guidance information and plain English interpretations. A source questioned how flooding the sector with dozens of documents would make IP processes simpler.

The department said it was “committed to ensuring framework materials fit the needs of users”, and asked for stakeholder feedback. Responses are due by 25 February.



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