Australian universities express outrage over research grants shake-up

SYDNEY - Australia's ruling coalition has been accused of interfering with the independence of academics after announcing a requirement that future research grants should not be approved unless they are in the "national interest".

The move has caused anger among academics, who say it will damage Australia's academic reputation and enable undue political interference in university research.

Professor Peter Doherty, an Australian academic and winner of a Nobel Prize in medicine, condemned the change, suggesting that future research might be required to fit the agendas of lobbyists and MPs.

"If it's not in the interest of the coal & gas industry real estate developers it's not in the National Interest? Who makes the decision? Bad idea," he said in a tweet on Oct 31.

Education Minister Dan Tehan said the "national interest test" would be applied to all future research grants administered by the Australian Research Council, an independent government body.

The council is due to provide A$3 billion (S$3 billion) in grants for university research projects over the next four years, ranging from about A$30,000 to A$8 million a year.

Mr Tehan said last week that grant applicants will be required to state how their research will benefit Australia, such as the economic, commercial, social, environmental or cultural impacts.

"If you're asking the Australian taxpayer to dig into their wallet and pay for your research then you should be able to articulate clearly to them how that research will benefit the nation," Mr Tehan wrote in The Australian.

"This is not about 'dumbing down' research. Researchers should be able to communicate to all Australians why their work is important and why it's in the nation's interest they receive taxpayer funding for it."

Mr Tehan's announcement followed revelations that the former minister, Mr Simon Birmingham, now the Trade Minister, had blocked funding for eleven humanities and arts research projects in 2017 and 2018, worth A$4.2 million.

The grants had been recommended by independent peer review panels overseen by the Australian Research Council.

Some of the barred grants included proposals titled "A history of Australian men's dress, 1870-1970", which had been recommended for a grant of A$325,592, and "Beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China's gender norms", which had been recommended for A$161,774.

Mr Birmingham did not provide reasons for blocking the grants, but said in a tweet: "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.'"

But the move to block the projects was criticised by universities and academics.

"You don't expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia's Olympic team," the head of peak body Universities Australia, Ms Catriona Jackson, told Fairfax Media. "In the same way, we rely on subject experts to judge the best research in their field, not politicians."

The vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, said research funding for the humanities should be "free from political interference".

Following outrage over Canberra's intervention in the research grants process, Mr Tehan said future ministerial decisions to block funding would be publicly disclosed. But he also revealed the new national interest test for grant funding, which caused further criticism.

The president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Professor Joy Damousi, expressed "grave concern" about the ministerial intervention in research grants.

She said she was awaiting further details about the proposed national interest test, but warned that it could hinder free, open, inquisitive research.

"Research is about challenging orthodox approaches," she told ABC News on Nov 5. "It is about offering new perspectives. If this test is there and entrenched, we have to question the extent to which Australia will fund new research."

The opposition Labor party's research spokesman, Mr Kim Carr, described the new national interest test as a "patriotic thought bubble".

Noting that grant applicants were already required to demonstrate the benefits of their research, he said the test would mean proposals were not merely scrutinised by their peers but by politicians.

"Researchers - especially in the humanities - advance the self-understanding of human societies," he wrote in The Australian on Nov 7.

"But they can hardly do that if, to obtain funding, they have to comply with a test that allows the government of the day to set arbitrary constraints on the content of their research."