Funding council ‘not stepping in’ to defend researchers

Fiery Senate estimates session probes funding councils’ 'natural justice' obligations when researchers are impugned

October 29, 2020
Kim Carr

Australia’s research funding agency has been accused of conducting a “jihad” against some of the country’s top academics, in the latest manifestation of the nation’s strained relations with China.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) has grilled universities about research projects that were completed up to five years ago, and have already been given a “clean bill of health”, after the projects were highlighted in newspaper articles criticising Australia’s joint research with China.  

ARC executives fronting a Senate estimates hearing were chastised for sitting on their hands while distinguished researchers were “pilloried”. In one case, staff in the lab of a top Sydney virologist – who was this week named New South Wales Scientist of the Year – attracted death and rape threats after a newspaper portrayed him as “some sort of stooge of the Chinese government”, according to Labor senator Kim Carr.

Mr Carr accused the ARC of complicity in the smearing of researchers by newspapers that based their reports on dubious information, and disingenuously claimed that they were not accusing the researchers of impropriety.

“When will you put out the statement to exonerate these people?” Mr Carr asked ARC boss Sue Thomas. “What are you doing to defend their reputations?”

The committee heard that the ARC had written to universities as soon as the day after newspaper reports were published, asking about due diligence measures undertaken to guard against security risks and protect intellectual property rights in the research projects.

“Surely you would have checked all that when you acquitted these grants,” Mr Carr told Professor Thomas. “You’ve already acquitted them and you have advised the auditor-general that everything was above board.”

Professor Thomas told the committee that there was no “statute of limitations” on its acquittal process. “The ARC has an obligation, when it becomes aware of allegations in relation to researchers or research funded by the ARC, to undertake due diligence…regardless of whether it is a current or past grant.”

She said the council did not attest to the “truthfulness or otherwise” of the accusations. “If the allegations are untrue, they impugn researchers and undermine public confidence. If they are true, they highlight issues that we want to be alert to.

“We want to provide public assurance that there is integrity in the research system. We don’t want false accusations levelled at researchers so we will follow up to understand.”

The committee heard that the ARC had not identified any grants that had been managed improperly, although it was still reviewing the universities’ responses. Mr Carr asked whether the council would make “a public statement in defence of the scholars” if it found no wrongdoing.

Professor Thomas said that was universities’ responsibility as employers of the researchers. “If we are satisfied with the advice that has come back from the institution, that is the end of the matter.”

“It’s not the end of the matter for these professors,” Mr Carr said. “They’re the ones with the death threats.”

The committee also heard that the ARC had recently changed its conflict of interest and confidentiality policies, to require funding applicants to disclose more information about their “perceived interests”. Professor Thomas said the new declaration requirements were “mostly about their foreign links”.

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