Research grant disclosure order ‘a big improvement’

Australian senate order could put an end to deadline clashes plaguing research grant applicants

February 28, 2020
Source: iStock

Australian researchers are hailing a parliamentary intervention that could stop them wasting weeks writing pointless grant applications.

Parliament’s house of review, the senate, has ordered the minister responsible for the Australian Research Council (ARC) − currently education minister Dan Tehan − to ensure that the council’s funding recommendations are publicly disclosed within two to six weeks.

The direction, passed by the senate on 27 February, could alleviate the uncertainty plaguing researchers because of ministerial delays in approving grant recommendations.

But while the order was not opposed by senators from the ruling Liberal-National coalition, it remains to be seen whether Mr Tehan complies.

The order was presented by Perth-based senator Louise Pratt, who chairs the senate’s Education and Employment References Committee. It obliges the minister or his senate representative to table a letter by the 15th of each month confirming that the previous month’s grant recommendations have been published.

The required information includes the title of the funding application, the relevant funding scheme, the amount of money granted, the date the recommendation was made to the minister and whether and when the minister approved the recommendation.

A campaigner for research grant transparency, who communicates under the Twitter handle “ARC Tracker”, said the order was “a big improvement” and could resolve multiple problems by pressuring the minister to approve grants quickly.

This could speed up grant processing and avoid deadline conflicts that often forced researchers to draft funding applications before they knew the results of previous years’ submissions − a dilemma likely to confront hundreds of researchers seeking funding next year under the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award scheme, for example.

The order could also reduce the length of embargoes that prevent successful funding applicants from publicly discussing grants that have not yet been formally announced by the government. These embargoes, which sometimes stretch out for months, can hamper research project planning.

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi said that the order would alleviate the “absolutely shameful” lack of transparency around research grant funding. “During the election, the Morrison government used ARC grant announcements to try to gain electoral benefit,” she told the senate. “Academic research funding in Australia should be completely independent of the government of the day.”

The order could well increase pressure on Mr Tehan’s in tray, and his compliance is not guaranteed. Ministers sometimes ignore such orders, although if they do so they are expected to publicly explain why.

Of some 60 senate orders to produce documents lodged since mid-2019, the relevant ministers have at least partially complied with all but four of them. A spokesman for Mr Tehan said that his office was aware of the senate motion and was “considering its practical implications”.

Ms Pratt said that complying with the order “would be in the minister’s best interest”. She said that researchers faced “significant inconvenience and time-wasting, and it is my hope that this senate resolution will provide some relief”.

“The ARC has independent and rigorous processes for making its recommendations on research funding and they should be respected,” she added.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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