Minister should explain why research grants are refused

Revelations that a former federal education minister had rejected a decision by the Australian Research Council (ARC) to allocate grants for 11 humanities projects have forced his successor to retreat – slightly.

Facing widespread condemnation across the higher education sector, current Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the government would in future practise “greater transparency if ARC grants were scuttled by a ministerial veto”.

Interviewed on national radio, Tehan said a minister should explain the reasons for denying grants approved by the research council.

“There may be national implications why the allocation of certain grants should not be approved,” Tehan said. “But the minister should explain why and perhaps the legislation should be changed to make that a requirement.”

But the vice-chancellors of Australia’s 39 universities, who had strongly objected to a minister overturning decisions by the ARC, urged Tehan to follow expert advice and not exercise such a veto in future – and to report to the public about such cases.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said while the minister’s announcement did not include a pledge to remove ministerial veto, he had vowed to make such decisions public.

“While it doesn’t abolish the ministerial veto power, the public and the researchers should know if a minister has rejected expert advice – so a commitment to public reporting is important,” Jackson said.

“It’s also critical to enable the Australian Research Council to tell applicants that their grant was recommended by experts but vetoed by a minister.”

Jackson said this was important so public servants were “not put in an impossible position” and so researchers knew their proposed research had received expert endorsement.

Responding to Tehan’s proposal to subject future grant approvals to a “national interest test” on all research funding applicants, Jackson said major ARC grants were already subject to such a test.

“The current application forms for the major ARC grants all ask applicants to outline the benefit to the Australian and international community of the research,” she said.

But she hoped the minister would explain to vice-chancellors what he had in mind, given the existing requirement that projects outline the proposed “advances of knowledge to the benefit to the nation”.

“It is squarely in Australia’s national interest that our researchers are able to push the boundaries of new knowledge and inquire into what makes the world work,” Jackson said.

"We have a research funding system based on merit with several layers of expert review that already asks how research will extend benefits to Australia.”