Vetoed Australian humanities research projects rejected again

Scholar loses confidence in application process after her previously approved project fails research council review

November 27, 2018
Rejected ideas
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At least three of the Australian research projects that had their funding vetoed last year have missed out again despite having been endorsed by expert review panels.

Respected University of Sydney art historian Roger Benjamin has again failed to obtain funding for a project that was recommended for funding last year by the Australian Research Council, only to be rejected by the education minister at the time, Simon Birmingham.

His project “Post-orientalist arts of the Straits of Gibraltar” has been publicly ridiculed by Mr Birmingham and the current education minister, Dan Tehan, who suggested that the average taxpayer would not be willing to support it.

Professor Benjamin had reapplied in the current funding round, but suspected that he would be unsuccessful because Mr Tehan would want to show “solidarity” with Mr Birmingham. He said that such behaviour made Australia appear “petty and parochial” in the international research funding community.

Media professors Elizabeth Lester and Brett Hutchins, whose project “Greening media sport” was likewise vetoed by Mr Birmingham, have also failed to win funding. They said that they had decided to resubmit their proposal after being misled that it had been within the top 10 per cent of unsuccessful applications, when it had in fact it had been successful at the peer review stage.

They had substantially reworked the application before resubmitting it, highlighting the project’s national benefit. “It’s obviously disappointing,” Professor Hutchins said. “It’s a pretty surprising circumstance to find ourselves in.”

Griffith University cultural sociologist Sarah Baker has also been passed over after resubmitting her project “Music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city”.

Professor Baker said that she had adapted her application in line with suggestions from last year’s reviewers, whose feedback had been “highly positive”. She has now been informed that the reworked application was rated among the bottom 25 per cent of this year’s submissions.

“It suggests there’s something potentially awry with the ARC review process,” she said. “I now don’t have confidence in the way in which these processes work.”

Mr Tehan, who has announced A$380 million (£215 million) in new research grants, said that three of the projects that had been rejected last year had been approved in the current round. All three were “markedly different” from the proposals lodged last year, he said.

They include “Rioting and the literary archive”, led by University of New South Wales literary historian Helen Groth, and also an Australian Catholic University project to produce the first history of men’s dress in 20th-century Australia. Australian National University art historian Robert Wellington also obtained funding for his project, which has been renamed “Art and cultural diplomacy”.

Mr Tehan said that this year’s proposals could have benefited from a new national interest test, which he plans to apply to all future rounds. “Using plain English to explain the value of research to the country helps sharpen the focus and remind people they are working on behalf of every Australian,” he said.

The test will give future ministers “the confidence to look the Australian voter in the eye and say, ‘your money is being spent wisely’”, Mr Tehan added.

Shadow research minister Kim Carr said that he was relieved that the grants had now been announced, after applicants had been forced to wait longer than ever before to learn the results.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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