Australian research yet to fall short of ‘national interest’ test

Opponents see campaign to ‘diminish the regard for academic inquiry’ as political manoeuvring rather than real problem

February 17, 2020
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Australian authorities are yet to apply checks and balances that were introduced to prevent university research from subverting the national interest, it has been revealed.

Australia’s parliament has heard that no university has been found to have breached the Defence Trade Controls Act, an eight-year-old law designed to ensure that sensitive technology did not fall into the wrong hands.

Meanwhile, a senate committee has been told that no applications for Australian Research Council (ARC) funding have been rejected for failing the “national interest test” introduced in 2018 by education minister Dan Tehan.

The revelations suggest that neither of the contradictory criticisms sometimes levelled at Australian university research – either that it is too abstract to have any practical application, or that it holds the key to technological secrets that could imperil the country – is well grounded.

The government’s opponents say restrictions to collaborative research and grant administration are part of a political campaign to “diminish the regard for academic inquiry”, rather than regulatory solutions to tangible problems.

They cite the national interest test – saying it was completely unnecessary because research grant criteria already contained national interest provisions – and a campaign to further restrict collaborative research with foreign partners, particularly in China.

Opposition MPs say suggestions that Australian researchers have become “cat’s paws of a foreign power” are reinforced by newspaper headlines such as “Rooting out campus spies”, “Universities forced to take action over China ties” and “China’s tech rise poses security and human rights dilemma for Australian universities”.

And they say the government’s practice of arranging for its backbenchers to announce grants at politically opportune times, sometimes months after the grants have been approved, is further evidence of interference.

Adding to the opposition’s grievances, it has emerged that a “new” A$12 million (£6.2 million) research programme focusing on Australian subject matter will be funded by diverting existing money in the ARC’s Linkage scheme.

Mr Tehan, who announced the “special research initiative” in January, said it would help to correct an imbalance where only 3 per cent of allocations under the primary competitive grant scheme went to research into Australian culture, society or history.

Labor senator Kim Carr said the new initiative was symptomatic of a “growing politicisation…of ARC grants” where a minister “seems to know better than peer-reviewed processes”.

Mr Carr highlighted former education minister Simon Birmingham’s 2017 refusal to approve funding for 11 humanities research projects that had been endorsed by the ARC – a decision that led to Mr Tehan’s introduction of the national interest test.

“The government has time and again disrespected researchers and, frankly, made a mockery of the ARC’s independence,” Mr Carr said.

Labor senator Tim Ayres called on Mr Birmingham to explain why he had intervened in the grants process. Mr Birmingham said the grants “would have been inconsistent with the expectations of the broader community”.

“Had I approved them I would have to defend that use of taxpayers’ money,” he told the senate.

He said he had not made his vetoes public at the time because “Senator Carr or others probably would have accused me of political grandstanding”.

“I was seeking to make sure that in no way were we being seen to attack any part of the research community or undermine the credibility of the research grants process,” Mr Birmingham said.

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