New test makes Australian research boss a ‘political censor’

ARC insists allegations of political subversion are ‘baseless’

March 4, 2019
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The chief of Australia’s central research funding body is being forced to act as a “political censor” by personally determining the results of a controversial “national interest test”, an opposition MP has suggested.

The allegation, raised during a Senate Estimates Committee hearing, adds to claims that the activities of the Australian Research Council are being impeded – if not subverted – by political processes.

The national interest test was conceived in the aftermath of revelations that 11 humanities research proposals, which had been recommended for funding by the ARC, had subsequently been vetoed by Simon Birmingham when he was education minister. Researchers must now provide short, plain English statements explaining how their proposed projects pass the so-called pub test.

Commentators argue that the national interest test is redundant because proponents are already required to address almost identically worded “benefit” tests in applications assessed by peer review panels.

It has now emerged that the national interest test will not be assessed by these panels but rather via a “separate consideration” handled by the ARC chief executive, Sue Thomas.

Labor senator Kim Carr said that this approach put Professor Thomas at the centre of an “inherently political” process. “You are making a recommendation to the minister essentially on political grounds,” he told her at the committee hearing.

“At what point do you have to act as a political censor on grant applications?”

Speaking later to Times Higher Education, Mr Carr said that the council chief would now be required to make a “judgement call” on every grant, assessing “whether or not they meet the political criteria of the minister of the day”.

“It’s impossible to implement this without a political overlay,” he said.

Professor Thomas told the committee that the ARC was “trying to ensure that highly ranked research is best represented to the minister”. The council told THE that allegations of subversion were “baseless”.

It said that it had acted impartially in serving the government of the day and would continue to do so. “The CEO is not a discipline expert and will administer the test ensuring that the response…is logical and relevant to the research proposed,” an ARC spokesman said.

Sources said that the ARC had put itself in a “dangerous” position by implementing the new test in this way without a formal direction to do so from the minister. “Staggering, really, that this is ‘the process’ to be used,” said a researcher who receives ARC funding and asked not to be identified.

The researcher said that review panels should determine whether proposals met selection criteria because grant applications were “inherently discipline-dependent”. Deciding whether proposals were in the national interest, in contrast, was inherently political. “This pub test does not pass the pub test,” the scholar added.

The claims add to perceptions that the ARC’s functions are being obstructed by political considerations. The national interest test was blamed for an almost unprecedented delay in announcing research grants last year, even though the test was not supposed to be applied retrospectively.

The ARC also raised eyebrows by informing proponents of the 11 vetoed grants that their applications had been “within the top 10 per cent of unsuccessful proposals” – implying that the projects had not been recommended for funding.

Mr Carr said that there had been a “level of subterfuge” in the communications about the grants. The ARC said that it had “followed its normal processes of advising whether the application was funded, unfunded or ineligible”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The real concern is the level of involvement of the minister - they ought not to be even seeing individual funding applications, that level of interference is well beyond the remit of any politician. Their role is purely to determine how much public money is to be spent on research, not to examine the precise details of individual proposals.

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