Tony Abbott plans to cut ‘wasteful’ research grants

Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott, elected in a landslide victory in Saturday’s election, has promised to reverse many of the policies implemented by the defeated Labor government over the past six years – including those intended to lessen the impact of climate change.

Abbott created a storm of controversy in the academic and scientific communities last week with a plan to cut grants to research considered ‘wasteful’ by his conservative government.

His new ‘commission of audit’ would reprioritise nearly A$100 million (US$91 million) of annual Australian Research Council, or ARC, grants allocated to what members of his team have called “futile” research, and reallocate the money to the National Health and Medical Research Council to spend on research into diseases such as dementia.

Under “new and more stringent guidelines”, ARC projects such as Spatial Dialogues: Public Art and Climate Change, in which researchers at RMIT University seek to explore how people could adapt to climate change through public art, would have their grants cancelled.

Other projects said to be a waste of money include grants worth more than A$1 million into philosophical studies, including the meaning of ‘I’ through a retrospective study of 18th and 19th century German existentialists. An A$160,000 allocation to researchers at Macquarie University to examine "sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt" would likewise no longer receive taxpayer-funded assistance.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said increasing investment in health and medical research would further strengthen Australia’s comparative advantage, but that this should not come at the expense of other worthwhile research projects that have been subjected to the most rigorous and independent assessment processes.

Angry union response

The National Tertiary Education Union condemned the plan, with union President Jeannie Rea describing it as “a direct attack on the academic freedom of researchers working in Australian universities”.

“Institutional autonomy and academic freedom are the essential characteristics that define what it means to be a university. While we might expect direct government interference in the determination of successful research grants in countries like North Korea, it is simply unacceptable in a country like Australia where the independence of universities is fundamental to our economy, society and democracy.”

Rea said there were good reasons why the ARC should be independent.

In 2005 Brendan Nelson, a former education minister in a previous conservative government, had “vetoed several ARC research grants supposedly in response to negative comments made by a newspaper columnist who accused the ARC of becoming captive to ‘leftists’ and ‘fixated by gender or race’.

“To suggest that any research projects which have been through a rigorous competitive peer-reviewed application process could in any way be described as ‘wasteful’ is an insult to the hundreds of senior researchers who give freely of their time to assess the thousands of research applications the ARC receives each year.”

She said Abbott’s plan was also a reversal of his reassurance to a Universities Australia conference last February that “higher education is one area where government’s role is more to be a respectful listener than a hands-on manager”, and that he would adopt an approach of “masterly inactivity”.

“Abbott has already apparently abandoned his ‘masterly inactivity’ approach to university and research policy. The gloves are off,” Rea said.

Scientists ‘profoundly concerned’

Science & Technology Australia, an organisation representing 68,000 Australian scientists and technologists, said its members were “profoundly concerned by the news”.

Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said specific research projects – all in the arts and social sciences – had been labelled “increasingly ridiculous” by conservative critics in the new government.

“But scientists know the flow of new knowledge is critical to the kinds of ‘real word’ results that all Australians are proud of,” Jackson said.

“It was Australian scientist John O’Sullivan’s search for exploding black holes that led to his discovery of wireless technology that has swept the world, and earned Australia A$500 million in royalties with probably as much again to come.”

She said Australians should ask whether they wanted politicians picking and choosing which grant proposals deserved funding.

“Scientists and research funding agencies understand that governments set priorities for research and that this is entirely valid given we do not have the resources to fund everything [but] priority setting is very different from political picking and choosing.”

Only a quarter of research grant bids to the ARC each year were successful, Jackson said. And only “the best of the very best” get through the careful peer-review, expert-driven process, she argued.

Dr Rod Lamberts, deputy director of the Australian national centre for public awareness of science at the Australian National University, said Abbott’s plan had “discomforting similarities to one in the US earlier this year.

Under the auspices of the Coburn Amendment, US Republicans had voted to ban the use of National Science Foundation funds for political science research unless the foundation director certified the research as ‘promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States’.

“In essence, supporters of the amendment were miffed because they felt that political science research often made Republicans and conservatives look bad,” Lamberts said.

“But even if that were true, it is absolutely appropriate in a democratic and enlightened society that any rigorous, peer-reviewed research approved by the pertinent ethics committees be eligible to compete equally for taxpayer funding – not just research that aligns with the views of a single political party or position.”

* The chance of Tony Abbott holding power in both houses of parliament, however, seems slight on Saturday night’s vote-counting. In that case, Abbott could confront an upper house where the balance of power is held by the Greens party, as happened with the Labor government. The Greens would curtail any excessive right-wing decisions the new prime minister might want to implement.