Outrage over minister cancelling research grants

Revelations that a former federal education minister interfered in a competitive research grants process and cancelled 11 humanities and social sciences projects, costed at more than AU$4 million (US$2.8 million), has generated outrage across Australia’s higher education sector.

The decision by former education minister Simon Birmingham last year and early this year to override recommendations from the Australian Research Council (ARC) was belatedly revealed in federal parliament on Thursday night.

ARC officials were being questioned during a Senate hearing and explained how Birmingham had stepped in to reject the council’s decision that 11 of the research projects be funded.

Decisions by the ARC to approve applications for funding from academics and other researchers are only taken after lengthy and rigorous investigations.

So when news of the minister’s action was revealed, a collective cry of fury echoed across campuses. The only previous occasion when a minister had overturned a set of council approvals was back in 2005.

This caused a similar outcry and may have been why subsequent education ministers have been more cautious.

As well as strong protests from major higher education organisations – including Universities Australia, the Group of Eight (representing the leading research-intensive universities), the National Tertiary Education Union – the Australian Academy of the Humanities declared the interference was “entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry”.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) demanded the government apologise to the affected researchers and immediately reverse the decision and fund these projects.

NTEU President Dr Alison Barnes said the government should legislate a requirement that, if a minister decided not to accept ARC recommendations, then the affected applicants must be notified and reasons for rejecting the decision should be made public.

Birmingham, a senior member of a conservative government already in disarray and destined to lose office at the federal election early next year, responded on Twitter: “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending AU$223,000 on projects like ‘Post-Orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’.”

But, as academic commentator Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute think-tank observed, Birmingham could have picked other examples that Australians might have regarded as being similarly obscure or ridiculous.

These included approved projects with titles such as `Beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms’, or ‘Music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city’.

Norton said Australian taxpayers were probably not going to get value for money from such `niche projects’ but that this was not the same as rejecting an ARC recommendation.

The key argument from academics, of course, is why have a distinguished research council to conduct lengthy investigations of hundreds of applications for funding, and then allow an unqualified politician to overturn their decisions – which is a serious waste of money and everyone’s time.

Universities Australia declared there was no place for political interference in Australian research funding, with its chief executive Catriona Jackson demanding that funding of research be free of political intervention.

"You don't expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia's Olympic team,” Jackson said. “In the same way, we rely on subject experts to judge the best research in their field, not politicians.”

Researchers depended on an impartial system that funded research on the basis of merit, she said. This was why academics relied on the competitive peer-review system to fund the highest quality applications.

“The current system is internationally-recognised as the best practice process for awarding research grants. Political interference in funding decisions undermines the integrity of the system.

“A funding process that is clear and transparent is fundamental to the ability of universities to carry out research for the benefit of the community.”

NTEU’s Barnes said union members and other researchers expected an education minister to uphold the principles of academic freedom by not directly interfering in the allocation of research grants.

There was no transparency around these decisions, Barnes said. Applicants were not notified that their grants had successfully navigated their way to the top of the extremely tough ARC vetting process – only to be rejected at the last hurdle by the minister.

“No reasons for rejecting the grants were provided,” she said. “We can only speculate on what the reasons were.

“Was Senator Birmingham’s decision based on perceptions of how his colleagues or conservative commentators might react to these announcements? If this is the case, secretive political interference in the allocation of competitive research grants is totally unacceptable.”

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations said the revelation signalled that research funding allocations are decided “not on merit, but on fitting with the government’s agenda. These decisions are taken in secret with no real reasoning provided – going against the spirit of intellectual inquiry.”

Group of Eight Chief Executive Vicki Thomson said: “When political views, political dislikes, begin to infringe on research projects that have already been accepted by this nation’s highly respected Australian Research Council, we are on a slippery undemocratic slope.

“This is clearly base politics. It is unworthy of any government.”