Australian scientists join outcry over humanities research veto

Leading scholars from Australian universities have joined scientific bodies to demand reversal of pre-election veto of humanities grants

January 10, 2022
Source: istock

Dozens of Australia’s leading scientists have added their voices to growing condemnation of a minister’s decision to veto grant funding for humanities projects, calling for an end to “political interference” in the peer review process.

In an open letter to Sue Thomas, chief executive of the Australian Research Council (ARC), and the country’s acting education minister Stuart Robert, 63 ARC laureate fellows raise concerns over the cancellation of six research grants on Christmas Eve on the grounds that they “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.

“Research in Australia has become political and shortsighted,” warns the letter signed by recipients of Australia’s most prestigious and largest award for individual researchers and includes researchers from all disciplines. It also calls for Mr Robert to reverse his veto and approve ARC grant applications that “pass through the tried, tested and rigorous peer review process and that meet the conditions set out in the call for applications”.

“The ARC be allowed to return to its core mission of funding fundamental curiosity-driven research,” is one of the recommendations in the letter, whose signatories include Australian National University vice-chancellor – and Nobel laureate – Brian Schmidt.

The letter, which also criticises more broadly the decision to announce grant decisions just a week before funding commences on 1 January, follows stinging criticism by the Australian Academy of Science that claimed political interference in the selection of research grants was eroding Australia’s international reputation and the integrity of its research system.

The academy’s president John Shine explained it was reasonable that governments align some proportion of funding schemes with widely agreed national priorities and strategic objectives, which should be made clear when calling for proposals. But independent peer review should “remain the central basis for allocating which research to support” after this, said Professor Shine.

“Subsequent political control of what gets done, where and by whom is antithetical to the spirit of a democracy that is built on free and open critical enquiry,” he added.

In a further show of cross-disciplinary solidarity, the Australian Institute of Physics released a statement calling on “STEM colleagues from around Australia to join us in standing strong with our colleagues in humanities against political interference in the independent grant processes”.

“Last-minute intervention from politicians should not be a routine part of this process and does not result in good value for money for the Australian taxpayer,” it said.

The outrage follows criticism from across the world, with more than 1,400 academics, writers and intellectuals – including the Nobel prizewinning novelist John (J. M.) Coetzee – signing a petition which insisted that the cancellation of the projects – four of which were in literary studies –“demonstrates a dismissive attitude to the value of the imagination and creativity”.

“The actions of the government reveal that it is committed to defunding Australia’s literary culture by overriding academic autonomy and determining what kinds of knowledge can and cannot be pursued,” it said.

Meanwhile, the move has also attracted condemnation by leading international scientists – including the recent head of the European Research Council, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, who said the event “affects very negatively its international image, especially for countries who are working hard at attracting scientists from other countries such as Australia”, the Australian Financial Review reported.

It is the third time in 15 years that a Coalition government has vetoed ARC grants in the run-up to an election – with the cancellation of two China-focused projects criticised by former prime minister Kevin Rudd as “consistent with the Morrison government’s politically partisan, professionally immature, neo-McCarthyist approach to any Australian seeking to learn more about the precise nature of China challenge”, the Review added.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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