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Speech: Removing the Ministerial Veto of ARC Research Funding

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 15 Nov 2018

This bill amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 (ARC Act). The intent of the Bill is to remove Ministerial discretion from approving or rejecting research grants recommended and administered by the Australian Research Council (ARC). The ARC is established as an independent Commonwealth body under the ARC Act. 

Currently, the Act gives the Minister the power approve or reject research grants that have been recommended by the ARC, including powers relating to the approval of expenditure on research programs, primarily Sections 51–53 of the ARC Act (in Division 1 of Part 7). This Bill amends various provisions in the Act to remove the Minister’s discretion to approve or reject a research proposal recommended by the ARC by providing that the Minister must approve a research proposal and the associated expenditure recommended by the ARC.

It is not remotely novel to suggest that academic research grant funding in Australia should be completely independent of the Government of the day. That is why today, I am introducing a Greens bill to amend the ARC Act to remove political interference from research.

This would mean that research projects, recommended by experts at the Australian Research Council, after a thorough vetting and peer review by the ARC, will be free from political and ideological interference.

No Minister should be able to dictate which research projects get funded and which ones don’t. The true test of academic freedom is that it must be free from political interference, no matter who is in Government. It should be based only on an independent rigorous assessment process.

We know that this isn’t currently true. It has been recently revealed that under this Government, former Education Minister, Senator Birmingham, vetoed eleven grants worth $4.2 million.

The reality is that it is entirely possible under the current system for the Minister to reject a research grant, which has been approved by the ARC, on almost any ground including disagreement with the subject matter or even the political leanings of the researcher. It is not hard to imagine that if we continue down this road; any number of research areas could be vetoed. If the Minister is a climate denier, defund all climate work. If the Minister is a coal hugger, defund all renewables work. If the Minister hates non-Western culture, bam there it goes. 

We need to trust the research process. I was an academic for many years; I know getting an ARC grant is no easy thing. In 2017, the ARC approved only 18% of discovery grant applications and 17% of Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards. In 2018, only 20% of Future Fellowships applications were awarded 

Academics have a right to be supported in developing and maintaining their pursuit of research with freedom and trusting the centuries old tried and tested process.

Funding should not be tied to ideological leanings of Ministers. 

This approach is not without precedent, there are other similar bodies which have grant-making responsibilities but operate without Ministerial involvement in funding approval decisions. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) reports to the Health Minister, who does not have any formal role in the grant approval process.

There’s no need for a Minister to be involved in which research projects get approved and funded. It may assist the Senate to be reminded of the rigour with which applications for funding through ARC are assessed. 

To begin with, the Grant Guidelines are developed in consultation with the research community in Eligible Organisations. Every Application is checked by the ARC against the eligibility criteria set out in the relevant scheme Grant Guidelines. This is done initially by General Assessors, who are distinguished academic researchers drawn from the ARC College of Experts.  Detailed Assessors who are experts in the subject matter, drawn from the ARC Assessor Community, then review the project. The applications are then ranked and brought to a Selection Advisory Committee who make a recommendation to the Minister. 

This is a highly organised and strategic process based on the age old process of peer review. The Minister simply isn’t qualified to make these decisions. It doesn’t even seem like the then Minister for Education Simon Birmingham bothered to find out more about any of the projects or contact the researchers before striking his red pen through it. 

We as a country are poorer when political interference tampers with academic research. 

For individual researchers it devalues their work and their time. Brett Hutchins, Professor of Media and Communications Studies at Monash University and Libby Lester, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communications at University of Tasmania had their research on environmentalism knocked back by the Minister for no reason. They said “We can live with rejection – it is a professional by-product of producing research. However, the rules through which funding decisions are reached should be transparent and the reasons for rejection should be communicated clearly to researchers and their universities. Neither has occurred on this occasion”.

Academic Mark Stevens was another academic who had his research vetoed. After political interference from Minister Birmingham to veto his successful grant, he was forced to move overseas and now lectures at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He said that the veto had “very real, human effects” and his family had been put through hardship by having to move overseas to find work. “Securing that grant would have been a way of staying in Australia, where [my wife and I] were born, raised, educated, and where we worked”.

For the research community it undermines confidence and job insecurity. The Universities themselves have come out strongly against political interference. Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said “You don’t expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia’s Olympic team. Our world-leading researchers depend on an impartial system that funds research on the basis of merit – this is why we rely on the competitive peer-review system to fund the highest quality applications.”

This is just one of a litany of attacks on universities by the Liberal-National Government. The contempt for higher education from this Government is really troubling. The funding cut of $2.2 billion, which effectively reintroduced a cap on a sector still reeling from billions cut from their budgets under the Gillard Labor Government. We have attacks on freedom of protest at universities of the Government and we have this ridiculous proposal for a national interest test for research grants.

And just when you think the Morrison Government is beginning to end its war on universities and students by lifting the cap on places at regional universities, we find out they are robbing Peter to pay Paul by cutting research grants to fund this.

There is no end to their attack on higher education. 

The Government and the opposition response has been weak. Merely publishing the reasons for the veto is not good enough. It is already too late. There is no justification for the veto and it has to go. No Minister, no matter which party they are from, should be able to use funding processes to undermine the rigorous process of academic research grants.

I commend the Bill to the Senate. 

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