Universities baffled by Coalition's 'national interest' test for public funding
Australian universities Universities baffled by Coalition's 'national interest' test for public funding
Dan Tehan says test would âimprove publicâs confidenceâ in funding, but applicants must already meet a national benefit test
Universities Australia has said it does not understand why the government wants to introduce a ânational interest testâ on Research Council grants for academics, given applicants must already meet a ânational benefitâ test.
However, it has welcomed the governmentâs pledge to make public any ministerial veto of a decision to award funding to an academic.
It said the Research Council must be allowed to tell applicants when their research proposal had received expert endorsement but had then been vetoed by a minister.
âThatâs important so public servants arenât put in an impossible position and so researchers know that their proposed research had expert endorsement,â the Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said.
But Jackson said she wasnât clear why the government was pushing for a ânational interest testâ when major ARC grants schemes already had a ânational benefitâ test that asks applicants to outline the benefit to the Australian and international community of their proposed research.
âIt is squarely in Australiaâs national interest that our researchers are able to push the boundaries of new knowledge and inquire into what makes the world work,â she said. âWe have a research funding system based on merit with several layers of expert review that already asks how research will extend benefits to Australia.â
Ministerial veto is provided for under the ARC Act, which came into law in 2001. Under the act, there is no obligation on the minister to explain their decision.
The government announced on Wednesday that academics who wanted to apply for research council funding would have to explain how their proposed projects will âadvance the national interestâ.
The education minister, Dan Tehan, said a ânational interest testâ would be introduced to the application process for all future Australian Research Council grant rounds.
He said the government would provide $3bn in grants over t he next four years, and the national interest test would âimprove the publicâs confidenceâ in why those grants are awarded.
âThe value of specific projects may be obvious to the academics who recommend which projects should receive funding but it is not always obvious to a non-academic,â Tehan said. âIf youâre asking the Australian taxpayer to fund your research, you should be able to articulate how that research will advance the national interest.
âThe new national interest test will apply for all future grant rounds that are yet to open.â
A furore erupted last week when it was revealed in Senate estimates that the former education minister Simon Birmingham blocked 11 grants, worth $4m, in the humanities that had been approved by the Australian Research Council.
Labor accused Birmingham â" who is now the trade minister â" of pandering to âknuckle-dragging rightwing philistinesâ, but Birmingham defended his decision.
It was revealed that Birmingham disallowed $1.4m of discovery grants for topics including a history of menâs dress from 1870-1970, âbeauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing Chinaâs gender normsâ and âpost-orientalist arts in the Strait of Gibraltarâ.
He also blocked $1m of early career awards announced in November 2017, including a $330,000 grant for research into legal secularism in Australia and $336,000 for a project titled âSoviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklistâ.
Birmingham said on Twitter last week: âIâm pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like âPost orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltarâ. Do you disagree [Senator Kim Carr]? Would Labor simply say yes to anything?â
On Tuesday, the Australian Catholic University joined other peak university bodies in expressing dismay at Birminghamâs âpolitical interferenceâ.
L eaders of all 39 universities urged Tehan to follow expert advice and not exercise such a veto in future and to report to the public about such cases.
âI am deeply dismayed that the former minister for education would veto these expert recommendations by the ARC,â the ACUâs vice-chancellor, Greg Craven, said.
âHis political interference undermines the peer-review system, which is designed to ensure academic integrity. The secretive nature of the interference is particularly troubling.â
On Wednesday Tehan said ARC grants ranged in size from $30,000 to $8m a year and he wanted to ensure taxpayers had confidence in how the money was spent.
âAcademic freedom and free speech do not require grant funding to exist,â he said. âGovernment funding is only one source of research funding. If a project has merit it can also be funded directly by the university, from the private sector or other non-government sources.
âAs minister for education , I can guarantee the sector that I will be transparent in reporting ARC grant funding decisions.
âI have asked the ARC to add an additional category to the grant outcomes so applicants are notified of instances where a project is ârecommended to but not funded by the ministerâ.â
Universities Australia welcomed his decision to be more transparent about ministerial vetoes, saying it was a âstep forwardâ.Tabloid derision threatens Australia's research capability, universities head says Read more
âWhile it doesnât abolish the ministerial veto power, the public and the researchers should know if a minister has rejected expert advice â" so a commitment to public reporting is important,â it said.
Laborâs innovation and industry spokesman, Kim Carr, told Guardian Australia that Tehan was ignorant of grant application process.
âThe very justification [Tehan] used for the measuring of the national interest, he sai d was about their impact, thatâs already contained in the application process,â he said. âThe minister is peddling ignorance and thinks that the government can spin their way out of trouble. Itâs crass cretinism.â
The Australian Greensâ education spokesperson, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, has also criticised the plan, asking how the government will define ânational interestâ.
âWhen the Liberals and Nationals say national interest, we know what they really mean,â she said. âThey have such a narrow understanding of the importance of research in all fields, who knows what will be on the chopping block. Perhaps the minister would like to cut off research relating to trade unions, climate change or asylum seekers?
âA national interest test is a smoke screen for allowing the government of the day to insert their political priorities into the independent research approval process.â
Writing an opinion piece for Fairfax Media on Wednesday, the author of the paper that was ridiculed by Birmingham on Twitter last week, Roger Benjamin, explained what his research grant was about.
âMisquoted by him and in Senate Estimates, the full title of my 2017 project, was âDouble Crossings: post-Orientalist arts at the Strait of Gibraltarâ,â Benjamin wrote.
âDouble crossing refers to the way painters and photographers crisscrossed the 15 kilometres of the most politically contested water in the world â" Europe to Africa, Muslim to Christian worlds â" in search of arresting images of other cultures.
âItâs ironic to see academic endeavours double crossed by a minister for education who dismissed them on the basis of a nine-word title.âTopics
- Australian universities
- Australian education
- Labor party
- Australian politics
- Simon Birmingham
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