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Research grant denials hurt Australia’s international reputation

The vetoing of research grants by former Australian education minister Simon Birmingham could damage the international reputation of the country’s research funding model and erode global confidence according to higher education experts. Meanwhile, at least one researcher has moved to the UK because of the denials.

The refusal of at least one grant has forced a researcher to move his family abroad. Photo: David ClodeThe refusal of at least one grant has forced a researcher to move his family abroad. Photo: David Clode

The last time a minister vetoed a grant recommendation was 2004/05

“In that international context, it would make people question whether or not the process is being upheld”

Uncovered during Senate estimates, Birmingham blocked 11 humanities projects recommended by the Australian Research Council last financial year, totalling $4.2m. The moves have since been branded as “political interference” and “reprehensible” by stakeholders.

Under the current system, the ARC reviews and recommends funding proposals to the education minister which the minister can deny without reason or public notification. The last time that occurred, however, was over a decade ago.

While it is within the minster’s right to deny funding, Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said doing so undermined the peer-review system and damaged Australia’s international reputation.

“What it does is it shines the wrong light on our processes in an international context,” she said.

“When you’ve got what appears to be… overt political influence on that process, I think in that international context, it would make people question whether or not the process is being upheld, because clearly, in this case, it isn’t.”

Speaking with The PIE News, Thomson called on the government to “follow its own advice” when asking for universities to increase their transparency amid a growing political debate over free speech on campuses.

“We think it clearly is base politics, and if the former minister would like to explain why or tell us that it’s not and explain to us why, then we’d be happy to hear,” she said.

“Ministers have no place meddling in these procedures”

In an open letter from Universities Australia, all 39 universities have also condemned Birmingham’s decision, saying a “ministerial veto decision in the research grants system erodes global confidence… and our reputation for research excellence”.

UA chief executive Catriona Jackson questioned the credibility of Birmingham denying funding recommendations made by ARC which is a government-appointed entity.

“You don’t expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia’s Olympic team,” she said.

“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.”

Birmingham has defended his decision, saying the money was spent on other research projects.

“I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar”,” he wrote.

His comments received further criticism from stakeholders, who accused the now trade, tourism and investment minister of belittling the humanities and undermining their value to the broader community.

“I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for [other] research”

The revelation of the 11 projects has also brought to light which researchers were affected, all of whom were not aware the former education minister had intervened on their proposals.

At least one of the researchers, Mark Steven, who submitted a grant proposal of $335,000 for “Red Hollywood: Communist Style Before the Blacklist, 1917-1950” at the University of New South Wales, has subsequently moved overseas because of the denial.

“Ministers have no place meddling in these procedures,” he said.

“They have no expertise in that with which they are interfering, and doing so amounts to the gross breach of an already compromised sense of intellectual autonomy – which is necessary if research is to retain its critical function.”

Steven, who is now a lecturer at the University of Essex in the UK, told The PIE the denials had “very real, human effects” and the international move had put hardships on his family.

“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,” he said.

“Instead, an international move was undertaken through extreme economic and emotional turbulence, felt all the more acutely by a working-class family.”

Tensions have been high between the federal government and universities after a funding freeze in late 2017, about which Birmingham said universities should be “embarrassed” if they were unable to find a “meagre 1.5% of efficiencies”.

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