More Australian research grants vetoed by outgoing minister

Overruling of funding recommendations, apparently over security concerns, divulged following minister’s departure

December 23, 2020
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Five projects recommended for funding by Australia’s central research agency were vetoed by the country’s recently departed education minister, with the researchers informed the day after he had left office.

A report from the Australian Research Council (ARC) shows that Dan Tehan decided to reject the five Discovery Projects grants on 9 December, when he was education minister. But the applicants were not advised until 23 December, the day after Mr Tehan was sworn in as minister for trade, tourism and investment.

Most of the almost 600 successful Discovery Projects applicants had been informed in mid-November, on the day that Mr Tehan ratified their funding. Discovery Projects grants have an average value of about A$431,000 (£243,000).

However, 11 grants were not approved until 21 December, with the applicants informed two days later.

Mr Tehan revealed last month that he had reserved his decision on whether to approve 18 grants recommended by the ARC under its Discovery and Linkage schemes, pending advice from security agencies.

The ARC report, which lists its grant recommendations from October, suggests that five of these Discovery Projects grants have now been rejected on security advice, with 11 others eventually waved through. A grant under the Linkage Projects programme also appears to have been belatedly approved.

The decisions highlight the increasing uncertainty confronting science and engineering researchers who collaborate with overseas partners, amid heightened concerns that their work could be stolen or used for nefarious purposes.

The rejected and delayed projects mostly involved physics, chemistry, materials science and nanotechnology research, with potential applications in fields including communications, energy, mining and medicine.

The episode also highlights the opacity of Australian research funding, with researchers often left in the dark about the fate of their grant applications and the criteria by which they have been judged.

A campaigner for transparency in research administration, who monitors funding decisions under the Twitter handle “ARC Tracker”, said the rejection of the five projects would have been “absolutely devastating” for the researchers involved.

“They have been given zero information about this. If only researchers were given criteria before they applied.”

Mr Tehan vowed to be upfront about any decisions to veto research grants after his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, was condemned for overruling ARC recommendations to fund 11 humanities research projects.

“As minister for education, I can guarantee the sector that I will be transparent in reporting ARC grant funding decisions,” Mr Tehan said at the time.

The ARC report revealing the new grant rejections was published in accordance with a Senate order enacted in February. The report was due by 15 November.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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