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Research funding regime gets personal



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.

education minister Dan TehanTo 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 but susceptible to bald manipulation. The field of research is bound to be narrowed."


Academics Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester — whose project was one of the 11 rejected — pondered the implications of this summarily fickle intervention. 'One cannot help but wonder: did the minister or any of his staff read our application or any of the other ten he chose to reject?' A more transparent approach, one sensitive to 'the reasons for rejection' should be put in place.

While the idea of intellectual censorship and a threat to academic freedom can be exaggerated — not all projects deserve funding, let alone the nod of merit — the risks of a personal, dismissive hand from elected officials is all too clear. Parliamentarians are hardly omniscient, and the current education minister Dan Tehan (pictured), rather crudely, gives the game away in his observation that, 'The value of specific projects may be obvious to the academics who recommend which projects should receive funding but it is not always obvious to the non-academic.'

As Joy Damousi, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, warns, 'Political interference of this kind undermines confidence and trust in that system.' Applications were scrutinised by a panel of experts who had 'judged these projects to be outstanding'. The economic rationalist disregards that finding.

Tehan has decided to formalise what had previously been an informal threat. 'We want to make sure that what the academics put forward as part of their research proposals will benefit Australia over the coming years.' To that end, a 'national interest test' to 'improve the public's confidence' has been suggested, a curious encumbrance on funding applications given the pre-existing 'national benefit' test that already requires applicants to detail the benefits of the research to the Australian and international community.

Such applications are not only hopelessly vague but susceptible to bald manipulation. The field of research is bound to be narrowed resulting, according to the Innovative Research Universities network, in undercutting future prospects. 'Any national interest test cannot be limited to a narrow reading of what that means.' Nobel Prize laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty was even more pointed. 'If it's not in the interests of the coal and gas industry it's not in the national interest? If it's not in the interest of real estate developers it's not in the national Interest?'

Birmingham's intervention, and Tehan's consolidation of that ill-exercised discretion, suggests that ARC funding will be politicised by executive veto. Expertise will be subordinated to the whimsy of the education minister of the day; researchers will be pondering how to shape their applications accordingly. The exercise of applying and having such applications scrutinised by panels will continue, but their work may prove meaningless before a new category recommended by Tehan: 'recommended to but not funded by the Minister'.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Dan Tehan, Simon Birmingham, Australian Research Council



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Existing comments

And so we will experience further brain drain as gifted minds abandon Australian politicians to their narrow minded mediocrity

Anthony Grimes | 02 November 2018  

Well said Peter Doherty. That the conservative federal government is attempting to control our thinking is only becoming more obvious by the day.

Tom Kingston | 02 November 2018  

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