The Acting Minister for Education the Hon Stuart Robert has vetoed six research projects that had been recommended for funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) following a process of rigorous assessment.
These six grants were singled out by the Minister who overrode the recommendations of the ARC’s CEO based on the extensive expert review process.
The justification from the Minister’s office: that the projects didn’t demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money or advance the national interest.
This justification reflects a deep misunderstanding of the place of basic research, peer review, and the essential importance of independent decision-making about research funding.
Australian taxpayers have been supporting world-class basic and applied research across all disciplines for almost 80 years through the Australian Research Council and its precursors, as well as other research funding agencies such as the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The limited research funds available through these agencies are often the major sources through which academic researchers can advance research and knowledge that delivers significant value to Australia’s economic, social and cultural life in both the short- and long-term.
Only around 1 in 5 applications for funding is successful (19% of applications successful in the most recent round of ARC Discovery Projects) with the rigour of the assessment process ensuring that those that are recommended for funding represent the very best and the most valuable investments in academic research available to Australia society and that positions the reputation and impact of Australian research internationally.
“One thing of which we can be certain is that the Acting Minister and his staff didn’t read or review these 50+ page grant applications themselves”, said President of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia Professor Richard Holden FASSA.
“One can only conclude that they’ve looked at the project titles and summaries and decided for their own ideological or political reasons that they didn’t like what they saw.
“This is almost identical to the political overreach we’ve seen in recent community infrastructure funding decisions: Ministers reviewing lists of investment recommendations based on comprehensive evaluation of business cases, and choosing to over-rule the experts to advance their own ends.
“The Ministerial power that exists within the Australian Research Council Act (2001) and it’s precursors make Australia a global outlier of one among advanced democracies.”
“This comes on top of significant changes to the ARC’s governance and funding allocation outlined by the Acting Minister last year in a Letter of Expectations to the CEO, and puts Australia significantly out of step with the approach of other advanced economies to public research investment.
“It’s hard not to see this as creeping politicisation of Australian higher education, and the Academy calls on both sides of Government to commit to legislative reform that will safeguard the operation of our academic research funding bodies from political interference.
The 2022 ARC Discovery Project grants (the largest single grants program administered by the Council) was announced on Christmas Eve 2021, months after the usual timeframe for announcement of the grant outcomes. Of the more than 3,000 applications received and assessed, only 19% (593) were recommended to the Minister for Funding. 587 of these applications were approved (with total funding of $258.6 million).