Three vetoed research projects win funding on second attempt

Narrow line between success and failure in latest round of Australian competitive grant funding

November 28, 2022
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Three humanities research projects that were spiked by Australia’s former government have secured funding this year, signalling an end to the political meddling that has dogged the research grant system.

But the funding allocated through the flagship Discovery Projects scheme is at its lowest in years, with more than four in five applicants missing out.

The federal government has awarded almost A$900,000 (£500,000) to three projects that were rejected by then acting education minister Stuart Robert last December, despite being recommended for funding by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The studies of student climate change activism, Chinese cultural politics and early medieval literature have secured Discovery grants this year.

But three other research teams failed to win funding despite obtaining ARC endorsement in 2021. At least one of the three teams did not reapply, stymied by the delayed release of guidelines for this year’s funding round.

ARC endorsement one year is no guarantee of success the following year in an extremely competitive process. While three of the 11 humanities research projects secretly vetoed by then education minister Simon Birmingham in 2017 won funding the following year, at least three other teams applied and missed out.

Australian National University legal academic Faith Gordon, a member of the team researching student activism, said she was “delighted” that the project had been funded this year after the 2021 veto – revealed on 24 December – had “overshadowed Christmas”.

The news had been particularly bitter for several early career academics who would have tasted their first ARC success if Mr Robert had not intervened. “When it’s your first application process, it has a major impact after it has gone all that way through such a rigorous process and the experts have said it should be funded,” Dr Gordon said. “Many researchers are in precarious work situations and we’re obviously in really difficult times with the cost-of-living crisis.”

She praised the academic community in Australia and elsewhere for rallying around the affected researchers and condemning the political intervention. “These decisions should be left to the independent academic experts who review the applications. People overseas were really shocked that this could happen in Australia.”

The ARC revealed the Discovery grant-winners a month earlier than last year, even though processing was delayed for several months by revisions to the national interest test that applies to all applications.

Timely announcements of Discovery Projects, the ARC’s main support programme for basic research, is crucial to researchers who depend on it for ongoing employment and to research teams keen to confirm contracts and laboratory access before year’s end.

In October the ARC pledged to announce its grants within “more specific timeframes”, with Discovery grants to be revealed in the second half of November. Education minister Jason Clare has vowed to end grant processing delays.

A campaigner for research funding transparency, who operates under the pseudonym “ARC Tracker”, said the agency and minister deserved credit for fulfilling their promises. “They’ve turned it around pretty quickly. It shows what’s possible when they decide it’s important to get things done quickly.”

But ARC Tracker said it was unclear why Discovery allocations were A$40 million lower than in previous years, producing the lowest success rate in six years – even though the scheme had attracted about 500 fewer applications than usual because of the processing delays.

An ARC spokesman said less money had been granted because “the amount of requested funds across all applications considered was less”. He said this year’s success rate of 18.5 per cent was “comparable” to the average success rate of 19.6 per cent over the previous eight years.

ARC Tracker said the low success rate was an artificial construct, with many highly rated proposals going unfunded every year. “There’s no reason why they have to fund a fixed percentage of applications.”

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