Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney Mark Scott is “appalled” by the interim education minister’s decision to block two of the institution’s research projects from receiving funding, despite proposals recommended by the independent research funding agency.
The University of Sydney received more than $ 30 million from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to fund 67 research discovery projects in the latest cycle announced late last month, the highest number of any university from the country.
On Tuesday, Professor Scott congratulated the successful applicants, but joined the wider research community in expressing deep concerns over another incident of “political interference” in research funding by the coalition government .
Two University of Sydney projects were among six approved by the ARC but blocked at the last minute by acting Education Minister Stuart Robert, who revealed the decision on Christmas Eve after an unprecedented delay in the announcement of the recipients.
“As we celebrate our successes, we are also dismayed by our researchers who submitted grant applications that were recommended for funding through a rigorous peer review process, but were canceled at the final step by the Acting Minister of Education, “said Professor Scott.
“This action must be seen as political interference and unacceptable to a process that relies on peer review to ensure academic integrity. We are calling for legislation to ensure that the CRA can operate in the future free from political interference. “
Mr Robert’s latest intervention – justified by the Minister’s own assessment that the six projects are a waste of taxpayer money not in the “national interest” – raised fears of a slippery slope for political interference.
University of Sydney Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Duncan Ivison said he believed the intervention was political interference and the Christmas Eve announcement was “disrespectful” to the candidates.
“It’s not a slippery slope. We’ve slid down this hill before, ”Professor Ivison told InnovationAus.
“This is the third time this has happened. [Including] twice in the past three years.
Brendan Nelson, Minister of Education to Prime Minister John Howard, vetoed funding for several recommended ARCs in the early 2000s. Power was not re-exercised until 2018, when the Minister of Education Education at the time Simon Birmingham blocked funding for 11 recommended projects worth $ 4.2 million.
The backlash from Birmingham’s intervention led Dan Tehan to introduce a national interest test for applicants when he took over the portfolio later in the year. Mr Tehan also blocked 18 recommended projects in 2020 for national security reasons before finally authorizing 13 and vetoing five.
The National Interest Test is used despite a pre-existing and ongoing requirement that applicants must demonstrate the national benefits of their projects. The new test, however, introduced a new way for the minister to unilaterally reject otherwise approved projects without explanation.
Professor Ivison cautioned against introducing a national interest test in 2018, and said his latest request is clearly an act of political interference in the funding process.
“I think it has become very politicized,” he said.
“The minister gave no other reason that he didn’t think it was in the national interest. What does it mean? According to whom? On what basis? What are the criteria ?”
When asked about the reasons for its decision to block all six projects, Mr Robert’s office referred to its initial comments on Christmas Eve, when it said the six projects “do not demonstrate value to the taxpayer money nor does it contribute to the national interest ”.
Several other research groups and academics have approached the minister for more details but have yet to receive a response.
The lack of explanation angered Australia’s most prominent universities and researchers, with more than 60 signing an open letter on Tuesday denouncing the “short-sighted and political” intervention and 1,400 other academics signing an Similar online petition.
Professor Ivison said it was high time to remove the minister’s power to veto projects without explanation, warning that this would put Australia out of step with major research countries.
“Look at the whole world. In the countries that are often presented as examples of excellence in government research, whether it is the United States, Europe or Canada, none of them have these tools that allow a minister to ‘intervene after expert groups have agreed on the allocation of research funds in an appropriate transparent process,’ he said.
Professor Ivison supports governments in establishing priority research areas that they deem of national interest as well as a renewed emphasis on translation and commercialization of research. But that should not come at the expense of discovery research – which has declined over the past decade in Australia – or the integrity of the funding process, he said.
“There is a complex interdependence between basic and applied research, like an ecology between them. And the risk is that the current focus on translational and commercial research overlooks the complex interdependence, ”Professor Ivison said.
“The worst-case scenario is that it becomes very politicized. So you have ministers trying to decide what kind of research is really in the national interest and what is not. It is not the minister’s job. The ministers’ job is to establish the ground rules, define the framework, identify certain levels of priorities, and then let the communities drive research excellence. “
Professor Ivison stressed that the University of Sydney will continue to support its researchers and will not back down from research projects in the humanities, but the continued veto of projects in the humanities sends a discouraging message to researchers.
“It has probably never been more important that our top humanities researchers get involved in some of the exact projects that were canceled by the minister,” he said.
“But like I said, it’s a very disheartening signal to the research community if they feel there is still a chance that the Minister will cancel their project anyway despite a very rigorous process.”
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