Research on and with China purged as Australian grants announced

Six humanities projects reportedly vetoed and China collaboration nosedives as Discovery outcomes finally see light of day

December 24, 2021
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Australia’s government has been accused of unprecedented political interference in the funding of research projects, purging studies involving China from grants announced in the shadow of Christmas.

According to claims circulating on Twitter, at least six humanities research projects that had been recommended for funding by the Australian Research Council (ARC) were vetoed by acting education minister Stuart Robert when he approved grants under the flagship Discovery Projects scheme.

And the proportion of successful Discovery Projects proposals involving Chinese co-researchers has plunged, with China – thought to be Australia’s top research partner – not even among the top 10 collaborating countries for Discovery Projects research commencing next year.

The details emerged in grants announced on Christmas Eve, at least six weeks later than usual. Discovery Projects outcomes are normally revealed well before mid-November.

A high-placed source said that the unprecedented delays were due to national security concerns, although personnel changes in the ARC and the government and processing delays triggered by the “preprints” debacle had also contributed.

Opposition senator Kim Carr accused the government of politicising ARC quality assurance processes in a “McCarthyist” campaign against researchers with Chinese connections. He said that the government had delayed the grant announcement to minimise media coverage and dodge public scrutiny. “They’re trying to dispose of this at the slack end of the season,” he said.

“This has profound consequences for individuals, just as the blacklisting of researchers did in previous times, [and] a profound cost to the nation.”

He listed University of Sydney virologist Eddie Holmes’ publication of the Covid-19 virus’ genome sequence and University of Queensland immunologist Ian Frazer’s development of the cervical cancer vaccine as examples of Australian scientific advances that would not have happened without Chinese collaboration.

China is normally the fourth or fifth top international partner in Discovery Projects grants, involved in an average of 57 funded projects annually over the past six years. It slumped to 11th in the 2022 funding round, contributing to just 23 projects.

An ARC spokeswoman said research proposals involving Chinese collaborators were not being singled out for extra scrutiny. She said that the ARC’s due diligence process was “country agnostic”, aligning with the recent Blueprint for Critical Technologies and the new Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector.

“The ARC recognises that the vast majority of the university sector’s international interactions, including those with China, benefit Australia,” she said.

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said Chinese-Australian academics were leaving because uncertainties around collaborative research with China were making it “too hard or too uncomfortable to do their job”. Meanwhile, “vaguely worded” clauses in statutes like the foreign interference legislation left academics unsure how to comply.

“It’s very hard even for legal teams to give you black and white answers to a lot of these things. People tend to err on the side of caution, which effectively amounts to self-censorship.”

Professor Laurenceson said Australia needed to be wary about “doing this alone”, with US-China collaboration still “pretty robust” despite evidence of the two countries “decoupling” in some fields. “The risk for Australia is that we’re a much smaller player in the global research and development ecosystem. Cutting ourselves off from China is going to have a much larger impact on our national interests than the US doing so.”

Research into China reportedly features in two of six humanities grants that have been vetoed by Mr Robert, along with projects involving theatre, literature and student climate action.

Laurie Johnson, professor of English and cultural studies at the University of Southern Queensland and president of the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association, confirmed that his team’s application had been recommended for funding but vetoed by the minister.

“Spreading good cheer by releasing the result on Christmas Eve,” Professor Johnson tweeted. “Feeling the love.”

Australian National University (ANU) lawyer Faith Gordon said her team’s application for a research project on young people, climate action and politics had also been vetoed by the minister. “Lots of early career people on the team,” she tweeted. “It is devastating.”

Mr Robert reportedly told the Australian Financial Review that he did not believe the rejected grants “demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”. Universities Australia tweeted that it would be pursuing the matter with the minister “as a matter of the highest importance”.

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said that under rules made by politicians in liberal democracies, grants were determined by independent research agencies using peer review. “It is completely inappropriate for grants to be removed by politicians, unless the grant rules were not followed.”

A research commentator known under the pseudonym “ARC Tracker” described the minister’s action as “gratuitous culture wars. It’s not about using taxpayer money well. It’s about creating division for electioneering.”

Times Higher Education sought comment from Mr Robert’s office.

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