Australian universities ‘still in dark’ over grant vetoes

Internal vetting found nothing wrong with rejected research projects, vice-chancellors tell parliament’s security committee

March 19, 2021
Attila Brungs, UTS vice-chancellor
UTS vice-chancellor Attila Brungs: “We’re still thinking through what we could do to improve our processes”

Three universities say they have not been told why their research projects were refused funding by the federal government despite being endorsed by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

As revealed by Times Higher Education, five ARC grants were vetoed in December by outgoing education minister Dan Tehan, who had previously announced that he was reserving his decision on 18 grants pending advice from security agencies.

The Australian National University (ANU), University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have now identified themselves among the institutions that were denied funding. But in testimony to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the vice-chancellors of ANU and UTS said they had been given no explanation other than that the vetoes were on “national security grounds”.

QUT’s Margaret Sheil said she had surmised that the objections had been based on the field of research and the Chinese partner collaborating in the project. “Our due diligence did not indicate any concerns on national security grounds,” she told the committee.

UTS vice-chancellor Attila Brungs said an assessment of his institution’s project before it had been submitted to the ARC, and a “full audit” of the principal investigator’s grant history following the veto, had found “nothing problematic”.

The project had passed the ARC’s national interest test, Professor Brungs pointed out. “We’re still thinking through what we could do to improve our processes and pick things like this up.”

ANU’s audits of its two rejected projects found that one should not have been submitted in the first place, but the other would have satisfied the university’s internal processes.

“We do not have any indication why it failed,” vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said. “We’re not convinced that there is an issue.”

The ARC told the committee that it had briefed Mr Tehan about “potential issues” with 18 projects following “sensitivity checks” spurred primarily by media reports. It did not identify the specific media reports that had prompted concerns, but agreed that they could have involved China’s Thousand Talents programme.

The minister subsequently requested advice about the projects from the Department of Home Affairs – the first time such advice had been sought about individual grants – before deciding to reject five of them.

THE understands that initial intentions to refuse several more grants were overturned following direct intervention by the universities involved. UNSW Sydney told the committee that two of its projects had been “delayed” over national security concerns but ultimately awarded.

The ARC said it had previously funded some of the vetoed researchers. It was now investigating whether they had violated grant conditions in the past.

Chief executive Sue Thomas said that while the results of those investigations would be kept confidential, researchers could be asked to repay money and prevented from reapplying if past breaches were uncovered.

The committee’s chairman, Liberal senator James Paterson, said the public was “entitled to know” of any past wrongdoing. “It is taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Labor senator Kim Carr, who is not a member of the committee, believes the vetoes were a sign of increasing “political interference” in grant applications, “vilification” of international collaborations and “blacklisting” of researchers and institutions.

“The last thing we want to see is the return to the security agencies determining what’s fit and proper for scientific inquiry as they tried to do during the Cold War,” Mr Carr said.

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