Australian minister ‘briefed three times’ on vetoed research

‘Vast majority’ of promised research commercialisation fund falls outside spending commitments, estimates committee also hears

February 17, 2022

Six Australian research grants vetoed on national interest grounds had previously been judged in the national interest by the research funding agency’s chief executive, a Senate estimates committee has heard.

And no criteria existed to determine that the research projects did not represent “value for money” – the other reason they were ostensibly vetoed by acting education minister Stuart Robert.

The six projects were among about 600 recommended for funding in a brief sent from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to Mr Robert on 2 December last year. The ARC had planned to issue its recommendations in October, but the “very complex process” had taken longer than anticipated.

The council provided two revised briefs on 13 and 14 December after Mr Robert requested more information on “due diligence” matters.

The estimates committee was looking into the circumstances that prevented the approved grants being announced until Christmas Eve – barely a week before the money was due to start flowing – after the six grants had been rejected. The delay and the vetoes provoked outrage in Australia’s research community.

In the latest expression of concern, parliament’s House of Representatives has been petitioned to “prevent political interference in research grants” by scrapping ministerial discretion over individual projects.

The petition’s author, Queensland University of Technology informatics professor Marcus Foth, is one of the ARC College of Experts members who decried the grant vetoes in a January open letter. “Ministerial decision to override the ARC’s recommendations for funding undermines a rigorous, multi-stage selection process,” his petition says.

Liberal National Party senator Amanda Stoker, who represented Mr Robert in the estimates hearing, defended his right to overrule the recommendations. “As a government, we make no apologies for making sure that Australians get the best possible value for money from our world class research programmes,” she said.

“We are very happy to stand by the decision to reject a research project on how climate shaped the Elizabethan theatre. Presumably it’s something about how the theatre might have needed a roof. It’s pretty hard to justify – at the price of A$449,000 [£238,000] – as reflecting the needs and interests and priorities of a nation that is dealing with many challenges.”

The committee heard that the six vetoed humanities projects would have attracted grants totalling A$1.38 million. “That was about one and a half million dollars of savings,” said the committee’s chair, government senator Matt Canavan. “Thank you, Minister Robert.”

The committee also heard that the “vast majority” of the A$2.2 billion the government has pledged to spend on university research commercialisation will not be allocated until after 2026, and consequently falls outside the spending commitments to be outlined in this year’s federal budget.

About A$829 million is due to be allocated to the initiative over its first four years, with A$500 million of the money earmarked for its cornerstone – a A$1.6 billion commercialisation fund – to be firm spending commitments.

But the committee heard that the commercialisation initiative will attract “new funding”, and existing ARC schemes – including Discovery Projects, the major support vehicle for basic research – will continue to dispense grants “at approximately the same levels as previous years”.

Acting ARC CEO Judi Zielke said she expected guidelines for the forthcoming round of Discovery Projects, which had been delayed by changes to the national interest test, to be released “within weeks”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles