Australian research test ‘a threat to national interest’

Minister’s intervention self-defeating, representative body claims

November 16, 2018
Professor Emma Johnston, president of Science & Technology Australia
Science and Technology Australia president Emma Johnston: “The minister has thrown a spanner in the works."

A proposed national interest test for Australian research grants has caused a logjam that is “a threat to our national interest”, according to the group representing the country’s scientists and technologists.

Science and Technology Australia said delays in the awarding of next year’s Australian Research Council grants risked triggering an exodus of scientific talent. “Researchers are in limbo and unable to work towards the prosperity of the nation,” said STA president Emma Johnston.

“For some, this insecurity and uncertainty is proving to be the last straw.”

Grants under the ARC’s Discovery Projects and Discovery Early Career Researcher Award schemes are usually awarded in late October or early November, following an exhaustive application process. Typically, researchers apply by March and respond to peer review panel feedback in June, in the hope of being among the 15 per cent or so of successful applicants.

This year, however, the successful grants are still to be announced. Academics believe the delay has been caused by the proposed introduction of a “national interest test” that the government flagged following revelations that former education minister Simon Birmingham had last year vetoed 11 humanities research grants.

It is not clear why the test should have held up this year’s announcements, given that current education minister Dan Tehan said it would apply to future grant rounds that were “yet to open”.

However, a spokeswoman for the minister would not rule out the test’s application to the current grant round. Mr Tehan’s office has also not responded to shadow science minister Kim Carr’s demand that the government set a date for announcing next year’s grants.

Professor Johnston, dean of science at the University of New South Wales, said that the ARC had submitted its recommendations “some time ago” and was awaiting ministerial approvals. She said the delays meant that researchers would be unable to prepare for their projects and may need to begin work on writing subsequent grant applications – a waste of time if they proved successful this year.

“We can only look on in confusion as the political process obstructs our progress,” she said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Australia, living up to its reputation as redneck wonderland
What is the problem here? This is not about academic freedom or anything; no one is prohibiting researchers studying what they want to and there are a number or grants they can apply for from private organisations, etc. If they want to study little pet projects but when it comes to government grants if the taxpayer/government is funding research the public have a right to know that their money isn't being spent on frivolous projects (and we all know the type - the grievance studies industry which produce research in autoethnographies which are never cited). This measure will not trigger an exodus of talent but will ensure that academics spend their time studying things which will contribute to society. Honestly, if you listened to some people you'd think academics are the most oppressed group in the world.