Australians fear brain drain after ‘boneheaded’ grant vetoes

Ex-prime minister says cancellation of funding ‘betrays government’s hostility to higher education’

一月 20, 2022
Sculptures installed at NGV International in Melbourne, Australia
Source: Getty
Arbitrary: six Australian Research Council grants – in literature and China studies – have been terminated in the ‘national interest’

Australia’s abrupt cancellation of several humanities projects approved for funding will make it harder to recruit and retain top researchers, leading academics have warned, with the country’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd condemning the political vetoes as “self-sabotaging” and “boneheaded”.

The warning follows a deluge of criticism of acting education minister Stuart Robert’s announcement that he was terminating six Australian Research Council (ARC) grants – in the fields of literature and China studies – on the grounds of “national interest”.

More than 60 ARC laureate fellows – including Nobel prizewinning physicist Brian Schmidt, the vice-chancellor of the Australian National University – condemned what they viewed as “political interference” in the “tried, tested and rigorous peer review” process in place at the ARC, stating: “Research in Australia has become political and shortsighted.”

Several of Australia’s most decorated academics have now told Times Higher Education that they fear the ministerial vetoes may trigger a brain drain as scholars decide against moving to the country or even quit the system altogether.

“I know of a number of people for whom this was the last straw and who have decided to leave academia,” said Toby Walsh, Scientia professor of artificial intelligence at UNSW Sydney.

“This political interference is hurting research in both the humanities and the sciences in Australia – it leaves us looking like China or Hungary where there is political interference in academic freedom.”

The late announcement of almost 600 ARC Discovery projects just a week before their funding was due to commence was also disrespectful to researchers, Professor Walsh added.

“Letting researchers, in the sciences and the humanities, wait a month later than usual to hear grant outcomes, and then informing them on Christmas Eve whether they’d have a job on 1 January is cruel. It seems the current government is happy to create a hostile environment,” he said.

Alex Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, agreed there was a “real risk” that Australia could lose out on leading scholars because of the perceived hostility towards open academic inquiry.

“Speaking as someone who has moved to and from Australia many times in response to the tides of academic fortune, I can attest that these things make a material difference to people’s decision-making,” said Professor Haslam, who left the University of Exeter in 2012 to take up a laureate fellowship.

Lynette Russell, a former president of the Australian Historical Association, told THE that the ministerial rejection of recommended grants appeared “arbitrary” while the supposed grounds of national interest seemed “vague”.

“Any suggestion that research needs to be insular and Australian focused in order to suit the federal government’s definition of national interest is simply incorrect,” said Professor Russell, who is based at Monash University and focuses on the history of indigenous Australians.

“Anything that damages Australia’s research reputation, and potentially jeopardises research funding opportunities is likely to make recruitment and retention of highly productive international researchers more difficult.”

Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, said this “kind of political interference does present a significant threat to Australia’s outstanding global reputation for research and our ambitions for collaboration”. “Increasing political interference and the narrowing of funding will make that harder,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Rudd, who was Australian prime minister from 2007 to 2010, and again in 2013, described the vetoes as “mystifying and self-sabotaging”, saying the decision by Mr Robert “betrays the conservative government’s hostility to higher education, our third-biggest export industry”.

Mr Rudd, who is undertaking a PhD at the University of Oxford focused on Chinese president Xi Jinping, added that the veto of a project on Chinese internal politics was particularly heinous as “we need as much good scholarship in this area as possible to inform the shape of foreign policy”.

“The national interest case for researching this topic is obvious,” Mr Rudd told THE.

“Stuart Robert is the single most boneheaded minister in [Scott] Morrison’s Cabinet of Neanderthals,” continued Mr Rudd, who added it was “extraordinary that this village idiot is now the Commonwealth minister for education, let alone that he is being allowed to politically interfere in the independent processes put in place to approve higher education research grants”.

“This is a juvenile ploy ahead of the election. The government is desperate to paint itself as ‘strong on China’ by looking hairy-chested on all things vaguely related to China, regardless of the detail, and let the national interest be damned.”


Print headline: Grant vetoes raise fears of brain drain in Australia 



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