Schmidt: take politics out of Australian research grant decisions

Vice-chancellor criticises ‘bipartisan support’ for rules enabling ministers to intervene in grant awards

February 7, 2022
Brian Schmidt, ANU, Nobel

Australia’s Nobel laureate vice-chancellor has called for the removal of ministerial veto rights from research grant processes, describing political interference as an “existential threat” to the nation’s institutions.

In a prepared speech to the Australian National University, which he has led since 2016, Brian Schmidt advocates an “apolitical system” for allocating research funding, along with a review of the Australian Research Council (ARC). “Political interference can corrupt knowledge and slow down its creation,” the speech says.

“It is one of democracy’s key advantages over other forms of governments. Our academic autonomy and freedom…allow us to pursue ideas across a broad spectrum of possibilities.

“What would our society be like when the study of history, politics and literature has to reflect the views of the minister of the day? Where would we be if we hadn’t been working on climate mitigation strategies for the past 30 years while the merchants of doubt sowed their seeds? What if we hadn’t invested in understanding the foundational properties of messenger RNA when it seemed just a dalliance with no practical benefits?”

Professor Schmidt’s remarks, made during his annual “state of the university” address, follow the Christmas Eve revelation that acting education minister Stuart Robert had vetoed six humanities projects that the ARC had recommended for funding – ostensibly because he did not believe the projects demonstrated value for taxpayers’ money or contributed to the national interest.

It is the fourth known instance of education ministers exercising their prerogative to overrule ARC funding decisions. In 2004 and 2005, Brendan Nelson, the education minister at the time, vetoed 10 humanities research grants. Simon Birmingham overturned 11 humanities grants in 2017, citing doubts over their relevance or value to ordinary Australians.

Mr Birmingham’s successor, Dan Tehan, vetoed five grants in late 2020, apparently over national security concerns, with the rejected applicants learning their fate just two days before Christmas.

While all four interventions involved ministers in conservative Liberal-National governments, the opposition Labor Party supports the retention of ministerial veto rights – which means political interference has “bipartisan support” in Australia, according to Professor Schmidt.

“As things stand, both major parties agree it is appropriate for the minister to wield this power,” his speech says.

Labor argues that ministerial approval provides a vital layer of oversight to ensure the rigour of research grant allocations, although shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek has reportedly vowed never to overrule funding recommendations “that meet the conditions set out in the call for applications”.

The Greens introduced legislation to remove ministerial discretion from ARC funding in 2018. The bill lapsed when the 2019 election was called, but it remains on parliament’s books.

Its author, education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi, said she would now move to establish a Senate inquiry into the bill’s provisions. “It’s beyond time the parliament was made to look at this matter,” she tweeted.

In a separate development, the presidents of five Australian learned academies have called for an end to “arbitrary judgements” in research grant allocations. “Australia’s research system must be responsive to national priorities, with strong governance and innovative and responsive funding schemes,” they say in a joint statement.

“We urge that our system be consistent with world’s best practice. Expertise in both conducting research and evaluating which research to support is essential.”

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