Research grant veto powers need guidance, Australian scholars say

Researchers press for ministerial code of conduct amid fears that latest political intervention may never be resolved

May 20, 2021
A surfer walks past the entrance to the car park to Bondi Beach which is blocked as a metaphor for research grant veto powers need guidance, say scholars
Source: Getty

Australian researchers want a code of conduct to govern ministerial vetoes of research funding decisions amid accelerating political interventions in the awarding of grants.

Hundreds of scholars in Australia and elsewhere have signed a petition urging research bodies and politicians to develop a charter to “inform and support” the education minister’s discretion over Australian Research Council (ARC) funding recommendations. It comes after a series of intercessions that emerged over the past 30 months caused at least 18 projects to be scrapped or inexplicably delayed, in the first known incidents of their kind since 2006.

In the latest case, education minister Alan Tudge has failed to make a decision on two humanities research grant recommendations for almost four months despite approving 65 other grants from the same funding round in March.

A government senator was unable to explain the delay to a Senate estimates committee in late March. On 11 May the ARC told the committee that Mr Tudge was still “considering” the applications. Times Higher Education sought an update from his office, which did not respond.

In December, THE revealed that Mr Tudge’s predecessor, Dan Tehan, had rejected five ARC grant recommendations on undisclosed security grounds. Mr Tehan’s predecessor, Simon Birmingham, covertly vetoed 11 humanities research grants in 2017, later tweeting that most taxpayers would not want their money expended on projects like “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar”.

Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said the delays and vetoes undermined the ARC’s “rigorous, independent assessment process”, subjecting researchers to “immense” stress and uncertainty. “Research should be free from political interference, no matter who is in government,” she said.

The petition’s author, RMIT University media and communications professor Anna Hickey-Moody, said threat of ministerial veto was a “shadow that looms over academics” – particularly in the humanities, where it influenced how people conceived research projects and applied for grants. “The fact that people don’t want to upset the education minister is commonly discussed and part of everyday academic life,” she said.

Professor Hickey said so-called pub tests only seemed to be applied to humanities research, with laypeople never expected to be able to grasp biological science or genetic engineering projects “over a beer”. She said she knew the members of one of the research teams affected by the latest delay.

“It’s an incredibly distressing situation [that] really negatively impacts the lives of people to whom it happens. That is one of the reasons why we need a better way of facilitating the practice of ministerial veto,” she said.

ARC grants can make or break the careers of researchers who have little chance of securing tenured academic positions without them. Such people can spend a decade earning their doctorates and several years preparing grant applications that can exceed 150 pages.

One source said he suspected the delayed grants would “simply never be decided upon”. This limbo would prevent the researchers from applying again, with ARC rules banning the resubmission of projects still under consideration.

The ARC told Labor senator Kim Carr, who had asked about the five projects vetoed by Mr Tehan, that universities had been given “the opportunity to respond to the ARC regarding potential sensitivities prior to the minister making his decision”. But Mr Tehan’s office had not told the ARC of “any specific concerns” about the projects, it noted.

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Reader's comments (1)

I completely agree that it very dangerous and anti democratic to have pitical interference in academic research.


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