ARC fellows condemn minister for blocking research grants

By Jackson Graham

Tuesday January 11, 2022

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert at the National Press Club. Services Australia is opening in Adeliade
Acting education minister Stuart Robert (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Dozens of Australian Research Council laureate fellows have called the federal government’s research funding “political and shortsighted” after six grants recommended for approval were blocked.

Acting education minister Stuart Robert announced the grant decision on Christmas Eve when researchers became aware some of the grants, which an independent peer review process had recommended to receive funding, had been denied. 

The grants were all in humanities with subjects covering climate activism, China, and English literature.

The minister says in the decision the proposals were “not value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”. 

Now more than 60 laureate fellows of the ARC have written an open letter to the minister condemning the timing of the decision and the minister’s intervention in the process. 

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt wrote on social media at the time that it was “completely inappropriate for grants to be removed by politicians, unless the grant rules were not followed”. 

The academics say in their letter that the best return for taxpayer funding comes from allowing researchers to focus on “curiosity-driven research”. 

“This has given us MRNA vaccines, the laser, and many other inventions that have lifted the quality of our lives,” they say. 

“Whether it be the test of ‘national interest’ or an excessive focus on a sector like manufacturing, research funding in Australia is becoming political and shortsighted.” 

The grants were due to commence on January 1, and were announced a month later than usual, with the researchers condemning the timing for not allowing for retention and recruitment of staff. 

They have called for all ARC grants to include a final date applicants must be informed of the outcome by, at least a month before the grant’s commencement. 

The researchers also want a commitment that future grants will not be announced on Christmas Eve, and a guarantee ministers will not interfere in the “rigorous peer review process” when conditions are met. 

A spokesman for Roberts told the Sydney Morning Herald that the minister believed the application of the National Interest Test was not working in every case. 

“This test should ensure taxpayer-funded Australian government research funding is directed to areas of national importance and delivers public value,” he said.

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