Normal service resumes as Australia keeps researchers in the dark

Minister risks Senate’s wrath by defying an order to disclose research council recommendations

July 29, 2020
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A period of transparency in Australia appears to have ended, imposing more confusion on researchers at a time when Covid-19 has already turned their world upside down.

Education minister Dan Tehan has stopped disclosing the grant recommendations he receives from the Australian Research Council (ARC) – a practice he started earlier this year after an order from the Senate.

The order required him to publish a list of each month’s ARC recommendations by the middle of the following month. It was introduced by opposition senator Louise Pratt to ease uncertainties plaguing researchers, by pressuring the government to approve and announce grants more quickly.

Mr Tehan initially complied with the order, publishing details of 119 funding recommendations that he had received between February and May. But he has not disclosed the recommendations from June.

He almost certainly received ARC recommendations that month, because dozens of grants under two schemes – the Industrial Transformation Research Hubs and the Australian Laureate Fellowships – were announced very early in July. These grants had not been listed as earlier months’ recommendations.

Times Higher Education asked Mr Tehan whether he planned to comply with the Senate order by publishing the June recommendations. Instead of answering, a spokesman flagged the imminent announcement of more grants under the prestigious Future Fellowships programme.

The response suggests that Mr Tehan may have decided to stop disclosing ARC recommendations to give himself more freedom to time research funding announcements for maximum political benefit.

This would entail a return to old practices, when it took weeks – and in some cases months – for the ARC’s funding decisions to be made public, as the government arranged media events to extract brownie points from every grant.

This created unnecessary work and heartache as researchers pondered whether they should seek funding before learning the results of their previous bids. Some wasted days or weeks drafting applications, unaware that earlier applications had been successful. Others held off applying in the mistaken belief that previous submissions had won approval.

A campaigner for research grant transparency, who communicates under the Twitter handle “ARC Tracker”, said that the minister had the discretion to provide researchers with “basic information that determines their careers”.

“Instead, he delays funding decisions for months just to issue a media release that no one reports, or holds them hostage so some backbencher can blow into an opposition electorate for a photo op. It’s disgusting treatment of Australia’s frontline researchers, especially in such a massively uncertain time as this.”

Ms Pratt said that the minister should be transparent with researchers and stop “wasting” their time. “Researchers need certainty, particularly given the circumstances we are in.

“By the next sitting of parliament, Minister Tehan needs to be able to table advice as per the Senate order.”

Failure to do so could prove risky. Defiance of Senate orders can attract censure motions or even findings of contempt of the senate – an offence technically punishable by fines or imprisonment.

Political opponents can also use noncompliance with senate orders as grounds to impede the passage of legislation.


Print headline: Australia resumes normal service as researchers kept in the dark

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