Australian v-cs unite against government research funding vetoes

Education minister refuses to rule out future interventions in grant awarding process

October 30, 2018
Assistant Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham
Source: Getty
Simon Birmingham

The leaders of all 39 Australian universities have joined forces to condemn former education minister Simon Birmingham’s vetoing of humanities research grants.

The vice-chancellors say that Mr Birmingham’s decision to block allocation of 11 grants worth A$4.2 million (£2.3 million) in his last year in office “undermined confidence in the nation’s research funding system and sent exactly the wrong message to the global research community”.

In an open letter circulated by Universities Australia, the vice-chancellors say: “Expert review is the cornerstone of merit-based research systems around the world. It ensures that taxpayer funds are spent wisely on the best research across all fields of endeavour. This also ensures Australia remains at the forefront of global research advances.

“A ministerial veto decision in the research grants system erodes global confidence in Australia’s research program and our reputation for research excellence.

“Such a veto also undermines academic freedom, by opening the door to any minister deciding they don’t like a research topic – irrespective of its merits – that could transform knowledge in a field.”

The vice-chancellors say that the decisions made by Mr Birmingham, who became a trade minister in August, had damaged the careers of the researchers involved, and in some cases they had been forced to move overseas.

According to reports, the academics who had conceived the projects were led to believe that their proposals had not survived the Australian Research Council’s extremely competitive peer review process.

The vice-chancellors’ letter adds: “This veto has also endangered the reputation and trust in the work of the highly esteemed Australian Research Council, one of the nation’s major research funding agencies.

“ARC staff have also been placed in the invidious position of having to give feedback to applicants whose projects were recommended for funding but then vetoed – without a public explanation from the minister.

“We urge the government to mitigate the damage to these researchers and Australia’s research integrity by reversing the veto on these 11 grants – and committing to follow expert advice in future.”

The letter came as Mr Birmingham’s successor as education minister, Dan Tehan, refused to rule out further interventions in the awarding of research grants.

Mr Tehan reportedly brushed off demands from Australia’s Labor opposition that he would not overrule grant recommendations “without a full, timely and public explanation”.

In comments reported by The Guardian, Mr Tehan accused Labor of being willing to “sign blank cheques because they don’t care about spending other people’s money”.

“We believe a good government respects hard-working taxpayers by doing due diligence about how their money is spent,” he said.

Shadow science minister Kim Carr, who exposed the vetoes during a Senate estimates committee hearing, had written to Mr Tehan asking him to restore a protocol established by Labor in the past decade, which obliges ministers to disclose interventions in the grant awarding process, ahead of the minister’s consideration of funding recommendations under three “Discovery” research grant schemes.

The three schemes collectively funded more than A$300 million in projects last year. Next year’s grants are due to be announced by the end of December.

The last such ministerial intervention, by then education minister Brendan Nelson in the mid-2000s, provoked a furious reaction from Australian academia.

This time has been no different, with public statements of outrage lodged by deans’ associations, the postgraduate student council, four learned academies, five university and research representative groups and seven individual universities.

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