Australian researchers have endorsed a proposal to remove the power of government ministers to veto grant funding decisions made by scientific expert committees. They say this veto power is just one example of Australia’s political excess in research and poses a threat to academic freedom.
Australian lawmakers are considering changing a law to remove the education minister’s veto power over projects recommended for grants by one of the country’s main research funding agencies, the Australian Research Council (ARC). . The proposed amendment is part of a parliamentary inquiry into political interference in research funding.
Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert vetoed six ARC projects in December, sparking outrage in the research community and triggering the investigation.
Brian Schmidt, Nobel Laureate and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University in Canberra, told the March 9 inquiry that “the independence of the research grant process is at the heart of how liberal democracies work.” . He said the veto affected universities’ ability to attract foreign talent and was detrimental to the national interest.
So far 80 submissions have been made to the survey, including from the Australian Academy of Sciences and Australian universities. Most of them are in favor of abolishing the right of veto. Only four oppose the amendment; one is from the CRA itself, which argues that the amendment would “undermine the Minister’s accountability” and weaken parliamentary oversight of research funding. The Senate inquiry is expected to release a report later this month.
“It’s long overdue for politicians to hear directly from researchers and universities how political interference hurts them and the work they do,” said Senator Mehreen Faruqi, who launched the inquiry and the proposal to put a stop to it. end to the veto and who is Australia’s education spokesperson. Party of the Greens.
The story repeats itself
Robert’s decision to deny project funding is the third such incident in the past five years – and only the fourth in the ARC’s 21-year history. The six projects concerned were in the human sciences. They included research on student climate activism, a study on friendship in ancient English literature, and two projects on modern China. Most ARC projects typically receive between AU$200,000 (US$140,000) and AU$500,000.
A spokesman for the minister said Nature in a press release: “In taking his decision to reject 6 of the 593 projects, the minister considers that those which have been rejected do not demonstrate the value for taxpayers’ money nor do they contribute to the national interest.”
After the Minister’s decision was announced on December 24, 2021, two members of the ARC College of Experts, the group of academics that makes the final recommendation on which projects to fund, resigned in protest. In January, more than 140 members signed a open letter to the minister expressing their concerns about the vetoes and calling on the government to ensure that the grant review process is rigorous and conducted with integrity.
“The ministerial veto feels almost like a whim,” says Andrew Francis, a mathematician at Western Sydney University in Penrith, Australia, and one of the two members who quit. “It’s such an affront to this process and the hard work that so many people put into making really extremely difficult decisions about which grant proposals to fund and which not to fund.”
Francis fears that the threat of a ministerial veto will cause researchers to skew their research proposals in an attempt to guess how the minister in charge feels. He heard from climate change researchers who reframed their grant applications due to concerns about political considerations.
The minister should not have the right to overrule expert reviewers’ recommendations when grant applications meet government funding rules, says Ronald Clarke, a chemist at the University of Sydney in Australia. “With the Minister rolling things back, it’s like he’s saying all these reviewers and the College of Experts are idiots and he knows better,” he says.
The tip of the iceberg
The ARC is not the only funding body that some scholars believe is threatened by political excesses. The Medical Research Future Fund, established in 2015, controls $20 billion in funding and has distributed about $2.25 billion since 2019. Although an advisory board of medical experts advises on the fund’s priorities, funding decisions are made by the government. health Minister.
It is “really unusual for a politician, however well intentioned, to decide what the calls for research will be and then decide, in addition to peer review, what will be funded,” said Warwick Anderson, the former chief executive of Australia’s main funding body for medical research, the National Health and Medical Research Council, who is now the secretary general of the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization in Strasbourg, France.
“In particular for medical research, Australian citizens expect research to serve their interests, not the political interest.”
A spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt said the minister is required to consider priorities set by an independent expert advisory committee when making decisions about MRFF grants, and that committees Independent grant review experts also provide peer-reviewed recommendations on which projects to fund.