Research council’s in-house experts join grant veto rebellion

Backlash grows to include proposed legislation to remove ministers’ power to cancel funding applications

January 20, 2022
Australian dollars cut with scissors
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Members of the Australian Research Council’s in-house panel of academic experts have joined the rebellion over the government’s vetoing of humanities projects that had been approved for funding.

In an open letter, 140 members of the ARC’s College of Experts – who play a key role in recommending grant applications for funding – urge the acting education minister, Stuart Robert, to uphold the Haldane principle.

Mr Robert has faced widespread criticism for terminating six Australian Research Council grants – in the fields of literature and China studies – on the grounds of “national interest”.

In their letter, the experts say that the recommended proposals were “considered to be of the highest calibre measured against international standards for research across disciplines” and that the minister’s veto “undermines” the ARC’s funding processes.

“Such interventions compromise the integrity of the research funding system, weaken public trust in the ARC, and threaten to damage Australia’s international reputation,” the letter says.

The experts express concern about the growing frequency of ministerial vetoes on research funding applications and call on the government to legislate to “prevent political interference” in funding decisions, and to end “use of the national interest test to make unilateral decisions on individual projects outside of the peer review process”.

“We urge that the government adopt standards in line with the Haldane principle, which holds that, while governments need to establish funding guidelines, decisions on individual research proposals are best made through independent peer review, and government ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded,” the letter says.

“In the absence of such commitments in Australia, we cannot safeguard the independence and legitimacy of the Australian Research Council’s decisions.”

Fears have been raised that the abrupt cancellations will make it harder for Australia to recruit and retain top researchers, particularly in the humanities.

In separate developments, the opposition Labor Party has promised that it will not reject grants on political grounds. Tanya Plibersek, the shadow education minister, said she was “committed to approving all ARC grant applications that are recommended by a rigorous ARC peer review process and that meet the conditions set out in the call for applications”.

Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi called on Labor to go further and promise to remove the ministerial veto from the ARC legislation.

“That would constitute a real commitment to getting political interference out of research”, said Dr Faruqi, who has introduced a bill proposing such a change.

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