Australian ministers claim public support for vetoing research

Storm of protest across academia against Simon Birmingham's scuttling of humanities grants worth A$4.2 million (£2.3 million) 

October 26, 2018
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Australia’s government is standing firm over its vetoing of humanities research grants, with cabinet ministers claiming the projects would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money.

But former education minister Simon Birmingham’s secret decision not to approve 11 grants, exposed in a Senate estimates committee hearing and first reported by Times Higher Education, has unleashed a storm of protest across academia.

The University of New South Wales, whose researchers had proposed three of the quashed projects, said Mr Birmingham had undermined the integrity of the peer review process and raised “troubling” academic freedom issues.

“Intellectual inquiry and the future of humanities should not be decided in secret, or on a political basis,” vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said.

Mr Birmingham broke with long-established protocol in refusing to fund the projects, which had titles including “the music of nature and the nature of music”, “post-Orientalist arts of the Straits of Gibraltar” and “Multiple lives: Louis XIV prints, medals, and global exchange”.

Collectively, the projects – which had been endorsed by the Australian Research Council – would have attracted A$4.2 million (£2.3 million) in funding.

Ministerial approval of ARC project funding recommendations is usually a formality. The last education minister found to have ignored such recommendations, Brendan Nelson in 2004 and 2005, provoked furious headlines accusing him of censorship.

Mr Birmingham, who is now minister for trade, said “the vast majority of Australian taxpayers” would agree with his decision.

“Ministerial sign-off exists for a reason, which is for the government to ensure grant spending is in keeping with the expectations of Australian taxpayers,” Mr Birmingham told THE. “In my time as minister more than 99.7 per cent of all recommended grants were approved and all funding proposed for rejected projects was ultimately committed to other research projects.

“I make no apologies for ensuring that taxpayer research dollars weren’t spent on projects that Australians would rightly view as being entirely the wrong priorities.”

Mr Birmingham’s decision was kept secret – including from the researchers involved – in violation of a protocol established by the former Labor government, which required ministerial rejections of grants to be publicly declared.

Current education minister Dan Tehan would not commit to disclosing similar rejections in the future. “Simon Birmingham, like all ministers, answers to the Australian people about how their taxpayer dollars are spent,” he said. “If he thought giving $220,000 to research post-Orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar was not money well spent, I fully support him.”

Andrew Norton, higher education programme director with the Grattan Institute thinktank, said that Mr Birmingham – like Dr Nelson before him – would “cop a lot of blame for meddling”.

Mr Norton said that by explicitly rejecting the 11 projects, Mr Birmingham was implying support for all the projects that received funding – including many that his colleagues would find “a bit odd”.

“There is a convention that the government does not intervene in particular research projects, and there are good reasons for that. Governments should set clear rules, knowing that on occasions there will be results they don’t like but that on average the rules produce good outcomes,” Mr Norton said.

Mr Norton added that the government was also undermining its own argument that people should be free to express unpopular views on university campuses. “Academic freedom and freedom of speech are on the same page,” he said. “There shouldn’t be interference from on high when people want to pursue a particular project.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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