Minister can veto our grants too: NHMRC

Veto powers not unique to the ARC, medical research funder says – although they are not exercised elsewhere

March 9, 2022
Envelope, with paper sticking out of it, word 'denied' stamped on it
Source: istock

Australia’s medical research funder has intervened in the debate over the withholding of funds for humanities research, saying its schemes are likewise vulnerable to ministerial whim.

In a statement coinciding with a Senate committee hearing into a bill to outlaw ministerial veto of Australian Research Council (ARC) grants, sister agency the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) said its allocations were also subject to ministerial discretion.

“The minister is able to approve some or all or none of the grants recommended by the CEO,” the statement says. “There is nothing in the NHMRC Act that prevents a minister from ‘exercising a veto’ on any particular grant.”

The clarification is a technicality in that there is no record of any minister ever failing to approve a grant recommended by the chief executive of the NHMRC. In the ARC’s case, more than 30 such instances have occurred, mostly in recent years.

But the NHMRC’s clarification blunts one of the arguments from veto opponents who believed there was no ministerial discretion over NHMRC grants, demonstrating that similar arrangements could readily be applied to the ARC.

The NHMRC Act says grant funding “is to be provided…subject to such conditions as the minister, acting on the advice of the CEO, determines”.

The overwhelming majority of witnesses appearing before the 9 March hearing voiced support for a bill from Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi, which would remove the education minister’s power to withhold approval of ARC grant recommendations.

This reflects the balance of formal submissions to the committee, with 80 per cent backing Dr Faruqi’s bill and most others supporting a watering-down of ministerial veto powers.

Representative group Universities Australia (UA) said ministerial decision-making should respect the integrity of recommendations made by the ARC’s College of Experts, who review grant applications.

“It is in our national interest that Australian and international researchers, industries and communities have confidence in the awarding of Australia’s competitive research grants,” UA’s statement says. “Researchers applying to competitive grant agencies…need to know that they can rely on the strength and quality of their ideas. Without this confidence, Australian research loses credibility and therefore competitiveness.”

One of the few witnesses to support ministerial veto powers, former James Cook University physicist Peter Ridd, said maintaining politicians’ discretion over individual grants would help to improve the reproducibility of research findings.

Dr Ridd, who appeared as a representative of free market thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs, described the reproducibility crisis as “scientists’ dirty washing” and said Members of Parliament were better placed to deal with it than researchers. “I would rather a politician…have that final say,” he told senators. “I would rather have you people ultimately responsible for these things than people like me.”

Meanwhile, committee member Kim Carr accused the Education Department of misrepresenting the ARC Act by omitting a crucial word in its submission. The act says that in deciding the funding proposals to approve, “the minister may (but is not required to) rely solely on recommendations made by the CEO”.

Mr Carr asked why the Education Department’s characterisation had excluded the word “solely”. A department representative said the sentence in question had been “a more generic statement and not a repetition of the section of the act”.

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Reader's comments (1)

The founding of science is crucial for development, at the moment human sciences are behind real sciences. The problem with founding it´s not new. I would refer to Nobel laureate Albert-Szent-Györgyis Letter to the editor: Dionysians and Apollonians in Science 176:966 The main problem as I see it may be the lack of competence of political leaders to judge the impact of a research project. I think also the science is not a competition it is a global cooperation between the scientists. Best Zoltan Szabo Sweden