Political hurdles for more Australian research grants

Research projects examining humanitarian crises and school inequality the latest to come under a cloud

March 25, 2021
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Two more Australian research projects face a possible ministerial stonewalling after being endorsed by independent experts.

A Senate estimates committee heard that federal education minister Alan Tudge is weighing Australian Research Council (ARC) recommendations that he approve two applications for funding under the Linkage Projects scheme.

“I can confirm that there are decisions still pending on those two projects,” ARC chief executive Sue Thomas told a late-night hearing of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee.

The projects are entitled “Visualising humanitarian crises: transforming images and aid policy” and “Sparking imagination education: transforming inequality in schools”. They were among 67 funding recommendations conveyed to Mr Tudge’s office on 1 February.

On 24 March, he announced his approval of the other 65 projects, which have secured funds averaging about A$460,000 (£255,000) each.

The confusions over the two projects could add to researchers’ anxiety about funding bids being stymied by unexplained delays or – more worryingly – falling foul of secretive bans.

In November Mr Tudge’s predecessor as education minister, Dan Tehan, revealed that he was reserving his decision on 18 projects recommended for funding under the ARC’s Discovery Projects scheme. Five were subsequently rejected on undisclosed national security grounds.

This followed a 2018 decision by Mr Tehan’s predecessor, Simon Birmingham, to veto funding for 11 humanities research projects that had been endorsed by the ARC.

Insiders are mystified why the two Linkage Projects applications might have attracted political disapproval. Neither appears to involve security concerns and both address significant community issues. Australia is dealing with a humanitarian crisis on its doorstep as Covid-19 infections mount in Papua New Guinea, and the pandemic’s impact on schools has inflamed concerns about educational inequality.

Academics’ employment can depend on winning competitive research grants, and few applications win ARC endorsement. More than four in five funding bids fail, more because of scarce resources than lack of merit.

The ARC also told the committee that it was considering inexpensive changes to its processes, which have been backed by more than 1,000 researchers. They include condensing funding applications, blacklisting unprofessional grant reviewers and giving applicants more time to respond to unfair reviews.

Professor Thomas said the council would have to “test the hypothesis” that these changes could be implemented at little or no cost. “But they are the types of things that we engage with the sector on. We’re always interested in harvesting good ideas.”


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