Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Research funding regime gets personal

  • 01 November 2018


The reverence for grants in universities has become an ideology. Books and papers matter less than obtaining a grant from the Australian Research Council, or some cognate body that gifts mysterious powers to the recipient. In this realm, knowledge and good works are less relevant than obtaining the next grant. The process self-proliferates.

To that end, scrutinising the merits of such a process is hardly controversial, nor remarkable. Over the years, the Coalition government has flirted with possible audits and reviews of the system, accusing the Labor Party of being flabby in terms of undue spending. How that scrutiny is to be exercised has never been articulated.

In 2015, then education minister Christopher Pyne abandoned an election commitment to audit research projects deemed 'completely over-the-top'. 'Tax-payer dollars,' complained Jamie Briggs, the then chairman of the Coalition's scrutiny of government waste committee, 'have been wasted on projects that do little, if anything, to advance Australians' research needs.'

As ever, these needs were never articulated with any degree of clarity or confidence. The Australian demonstrated this all-encompassing philistinism by taking issue with a Sydney University study examining the influence of Samuel Beckett upon French literature and a Monash University study considering the 16th and 17th century garden as 'complex constructions capable of eliciting a wide range of responses'. The subtext here? If it is foreign, it is presumptively against the interest of the Australian taxpayer.

Last week, the estimates of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee revealed that the process of examining the award of research grants had been personalised. Former education and training minister Simon Birmingham during the 2017-8 funding round had personally considered, or not, as the case might be, the merits of 11 projects for government funding through the Australian Research Council totalling $4.2 million. These ended up being binned.

Projects placed on the rejection pile included a La Trobe University project 'Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity' ($926,372); 'the music of nature and the nature of music' from Macquarie University ($764,744) and an ANU proposal 'Price, metals and materials in the global exchange' ($391,574).

In a response to Labor Senator Kim Carr's accusation at this 'unprecedented' interference 'with Australia's peer review system', Birmingham proved scornful. 'I'm pretty sure most Australian tax payers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like "Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar".'


"Such applications are not only hopelessly vague