Grant veto leaves university between a rock and a hard place

Australian institution ‘playing into government’s hands’ by bankrolling stymied project

November 19, 2018
Scaffolding around sculpture
Source: Getty

Government vetoing of project grants has put an Australian university in a no-win position amid claims that its support for one researcher could damage the prospects of others.

The Australian National University came to the rescue of its art historian Robert Wellington after it emerged that he had been denied a research grant from the Australian Research Council against the recommendations of a peer review panel.

Brian Schmidt, ANU’s vice-chancellor, was quick to reassure Dr Wellington after news broke that Simon Birmingham, the former education minister, had vetoed the grant along with 10 others.

“This is not right,” Professor Schmidt told Dr Wellington in a tweet from overseas. “I will work to overturn, one way or another, the injustice done to you.”

In a subsequent email to ANU staff, Professor Schmidt said that the university would cover the costs of Dr Wellington’s work. “The competitive grants programmes play a vital role in Australia’s research landscape, so it is essential that trust and confidence in their integrity are restored,” he said.

Dr Wellington had been earmarked to receive A$392,000 (£223,000) for his project “Multiple lives: Louis XIV prints, medals and global exchange”, which examines cross-cultural communication issues that arise when multiple copies of art objects – in this case, French diplomatic gifts from the baroque period – exist in disparate countries.

Professor Schmidt said that he was proud of ANU’s humanities research. “The outcomes of research in these disciplines are integral to understanding and tackling many of the big issues facing society, and I affirm the commitment of ANU to humanities research as a core activity.”

But sources said that the gesture could send the government a message that it did not need to support humanities research because universities would “step in”. They drew parallels with the Office for Learning and Teaching, a government-funded agency that supported educational research and improvements to teaching practice.

The OLT was subjected to funding cuts and disbanded completely after the government proposed that universities take over its functions. A vice-chancellor said that universities’ compliance with this idea had given the government a green light to “never fund learning and teaching grants again”, and warned that the same thing could happen with humanities research.

“If it had happened to me, I would have stepped in and funded [the affected research project] immediately and said nothing,” the vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education. “I would not have gone public.”

Another source said that ANU’s move could jeopardise aspirations for comprehensive research excellence across the sector. “Not all universities can keep cross-subsidising humanities if they don’t get the grant. ANU has huge reserves it can draw on.”

But Kim Carr, the shadow science minister, said that Professor Schmidt should be commended. “He’s called on university resources to make up the gap,” Mr Carr said.

“It’s entirely appropriate that the university has been able to step in, but unfortunate that they’ve had to do it. This is a highly commendable project, and the fact that the government has denied the award is inexplicable.”

The opposition says that the number of ARC grants for research in the humanities and social sciences has fallen by more than one-third since 2016.

The government plans a “national interest” test to help it decide which projects to support.

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Reader's comments (2)

Unless a government/minister is so very dim- witted, it should not draw the wrong lessons from the laudably affirmative and exemplary action of the VC. To even suggest the govt may do so is the greater insult to its rationalistic instincts and a mistrust of govt concern for excellence and academic productivity within its own spheres. Yet some govt may draw wrong lessons and resort to wrong lanes ; that should be a measure of its illegitimacy to govern . That said, researchers must ensure their objects of research have intrinsically competitive merits where societal goals are concerned and where often enough funds inelasticity makes prioritisation and elimination the wiser policy by govt. Basil jide fadipe.
Perhaps it would be wiser for the universities to demand a 'block grant' from government funds and handle the allocation to individual researchers themselves... it would at least eliminate political meddling.