Australian government accused of politicising grant announcements

Research grants that have languished in Australian politicians’ to-do trays are ‘spun’ as rapid government action

January 24, 2020
Source: Getty

Australia’s government has been accused of politicising research grants through its timing of funding announcements for projects involving disasters such as bushfires and hailstorms.

The government appears to be sitting on information about research initiatives while it awaits politically advantageous times to announce them. This undermines the perceived independence of the grant award process and risks discouraging research into subjects unlikely to offer a political edge, one researcher said.

“They look for an opportunity to release a batch of grants where they can make a bit of hay because of current events,” said the researcher, who asked not to be named. “It’s bringing the decisions into the political realm.”

Four days after ferocious hailstorms battered Canberra and Sydney on 20 January, education minister Dan Tehan revealed that the government was awarding University of Melbourne researchers a A$540,000 (£282,000) grant to develop technology to “accurately assess the performance of aluminium cladding, glass facades and skylights under severe hailstorm events”.

Mr Tehan highlighted the research as one of 18 new initiatives funded under the Linkage Projects scheme. The grants calendar published by the Australian Research Council, which oversees the scheme, shows that recipients had applied for the money last May or June and had been privately informed of their success on 18 November.

On 12 January, Mr Tehan announced that Western Sydney University would receive A$524,000 to develop a model that predicts the moisture content of forest vegetation. He said that the research would help save lives and property by improving bushfire prevention and mitigation.

The project was one of 20 funded under another Linkage Projects round. Recipients had received confidential advice of their grants the previous month, after applying between June and August.

Mr Tehan revealed the bushfire funding in a media release issued at 9am on a Sunday, an unusual day for announcements of this kind. The following hour, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared on ABC television to defend his response to the bushfire crisis, he highlighted actions that the government had taken “in a very short period of time” including initiatives announced that day.

The researcher said that there was a “real danger” that the public and fellow academics would form a view that the independence of the grants process, and the peer review system that informed it, was being “overridden by political expedience”. Colleagues joked that “maybe I should put ‘bushfire’ in the title of my astronomy grant”.

“That perception that the government wants to use these announcements as political tools will start to affect people’s assessments of what research will be funded,” the researcher said.

Delays in funding announcements have caused massive disruption in Australia’s research community over the past two years, with some people forced overseas by the uncertainty. Last year Mr Tehan instructed the ARC to advise universities of funding outcomes under embargo, in a system designed to give researchers certainty while banning them from publicising their grants until the government had announced them.

Asked about the timing of the bushfire and hailstorm research announcements, Mr Tehan said: “I will continue to work with the ARC to ensure that grant outcomes are announced as soon as possible and to highlight to the Australian taxpayer how the government is spending their tax dollars in this very important area.”

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