HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 26 NOVEMBER 2019
The Australian Research Council plays a crucial role in allocating research funding in Australia. As a former professor at the Australian National University, I was the successful recipient of two Linkage Program grants and two Discovery Project grants, and I put many hours into reviewing proposals put forward for Australian Research Council funding. I can attest to the House that this is a common practice for academics. Contestable research funding is an important part of our system, and Australian researchers rely on the independent scrutiny of the Australian Research Council.
Researchers recognise that the peer review process is extraordinarily rigorous and give it greater respect than other methods of handing out research funding, such as the more ad hoc approach employed by the Medical Research Future Fund as well as other funding systems which have more ministerial meddling in them.
Australian Research Council funding is seen as being above politics—at least that has been its history until the last few years. We have seen, under this government, an extraordinary politicisation of the allocation of Australian Research Council grants. Barbara Keys, a historian at the University of Melbourne who trained at Harvard, tweeted recently:
Yup. Disgust with months-long purely political delays that exact high psychological cost and actively hurt ongoing research is one reason I'm heading overseas.
She is but one of many academics who are extraordinarily frustrated at the partisan meddling that the current minister for education and the former minister for education Senator Birmingham have engaged in over recent years.
Professor Jodie Bradby, a professor of physics at the Australian National University, wrote on 15 November for The Conversation that there is always going to be uncertainty in a research career. Professor Bradby wrote:
Recently, however, the situation has been made even worse by delays in announcements of government funding—delays that appear to be caused by government using announcements for political advantage.
She points out that nearly $800 million in grants allocated annually by the Australian Research Council have been delayed in order to give the coalition a purely partisan advantage. Professor Bradby draws on work that has been compiled by the anonymous Twitter account @ARC_Tracker, which noted on 12 November that an ARC training centre at Monash University had been announced by the minister with the member for Menzies. As the account noted, Monash is not in fact in Menzies. The main campus is in Hotham, but, because the member for Hotham is a Labor member, the decision was made to make the announcement with a coalition member instead.
A leaked internal email from the University of Queensland stated that it understands that the embargo for the grants for early career researchers 'is lifted by local MPs in conjunction with the Minister for Education'. These DECRA grants are a vital way for young-career researchers to get their early start, yet their knowledge of how their career is going to be affected by the announcement of grants is being held up for purely partisan gains.
The @ARC_tracker account went back to 1999 to look at the announcement of Discovery Projects grants and found that, in order to find a date when the government announced the successful discovery project grants so late in the year, you have to go back 20 years. Not since 1999 have the Discovery Projects grants been announced so late. Typically they've been announced some time in mid to late October but this year they were announced at the very end of November, which has created further uncertainty for academics, further instability, further risks that academics will give up on promising careers and move overseas.
Last year Minister Birmingham decided to block 11 humanities grants recommended by the Australian Research Council. Minister Birmingham decided that he is a better judge of how humanities grants will be allocated than the experts who, between them, have spent hundreds of hours assessing these grants. The minister very proudly flaunts his philistinism on Twitter, saying that he is quite happy to knock off an application dealing with post orientalist arts. Apparently that's something he can dismiss, probably just by reading the headline. As then Shadow Minister Carr has noted, this is unprecedented, there is no public disclosure and no explanation given to the Australian public as to why the minister has traduced the system of peer review in this way.
The heavy politicisation of Australian Research Council grants is only of political benefit. There is no national benefit to Australia of this kind of partisan meddling. The minister must cease it immediately. The minister must give an undertaking that, in future, announcements will be made on the website to all candidates simultaneously. To allocate grants in conjunction with local MPs gives the false impression to the Australian public that this is pork being handed out by the Morrison government, rather than grants carefully assessed by expert scrutiny in the field and allocated purely on merit. The politicisation of the Australian Research Council is hurting our productive capacity, it is sending researchers offshore and it must stop at once.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.