Furore escalates over Robert’s ARC veto

By Melissa Coade

Thursday January 20, 2022

Stuart Robert
Stuart Robert is the acting minister for education and youth. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Outrage over the exercise of Stuart Robert’s ministerial discretion to overrule six Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grants has grown, with two members of the college of experts quitting in protest at what they say is an inappropriate overreach.

In the latest of a series of open letters to acting education and youth minister Stuart Robert, 139 former and current members of the ARC’s college of experts are now calling for an end to the minister’s ability to make ​​‘unilateral decisions on individual projects outside of the peer review process’

They have called for the minister to meet with representatives to discuss their concerns. Chief among the urgent changes the academics want to see made include amending the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to ensure the independence of the council, and prevent any future political interference in research grants.

In January, The Mandarin reported on the criticism of the minister’s ‘political and shortsighted’ decision to reject six grants recommended for Discovery Project funding approval. The decision was supposedly made on the basis that Robert viewed the projects as not being ‘value for taxpayers’ money’ and failing to be in ‘the national interest’. 

All six of the blocked research projects were from the humanities and included topics covering climate activism, China, and English literature.

The latest letter to Robert said the situation damaged Australia’s reputation, weakened public trust in the ARC and undermined the rigorous approvals process recommended projects were subjected. 

“The minister’s stated reasons for rejecting the grants relate to their value for money and their benefit to Australia, but both criteria are explicitly addressed in all Discovery Project proposals and considered in detail by the expert assessors,” the letter read.

Under the current ARC award funding scheme, research proposals are selected after a multi-stage review judged by college members. Applications are then individually discussed and voted on at the Selection Advisory Committee panel meetings.

“The 19% of submitted proposals recommended for 2022 were considered to be of the highest calibre measured against international standards for research across disciplines,” the letter read.

“Each was recommended on the strength not only of quality, innovation and feasibility, but also the wider benefit and value of the proposed research.”

Prior to 2018, the use of ministerial discretion had only ever been used once before, the signed college members pointed out in their letter. However in that year, the power was used by the minister of the day to reject 11 proposals that were recommended for funding – and now another six for the 2022 awards.

A separate statement from the president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Professor Lesley Head labelled Robert’s decision to overrule the ARC’s recommendation for the six rejected projects as ‘puzzling’, arguing that it was hard to think of areas that were more vital to Australia’s national interest than better understanding China and climate change. 

“The humanities is an important forum where diverse perspectives on contemporary issues are debated, and insights from different times, places and cultures are brought to bear. However, the decision’s consequences are far-reaching and go beyond the humanities,” Head said.

“Each [research proposal] had been subject to hundreds of hours of labour – by the applicants, by independent expert reviewers, and by a multidisciplinary college of experts who rank applications. 

“The minister’s decision is wasteful; an affront to the expertise of the scholars and educators who contribute their time and effort to this process,” she said.

The letter’s college members want the government to adopt standards in line with the Haldane Principle, upholding the view that decisions on individual research proposals ‘are best made through independent peer review’. They have also stressed the need to continue to require senior research expertise of all members admitted to the ARC College of Experts.

“Government ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded,” the letter read.

“In the absence of such commitments in Australia, we cannot safeguard the independence and legitimacy of the Australian Research Council’s decisions.”

Furthermore, 63 ARC Laureate Fellows noted in another letter last week that it was unacceptable a minister should be making political decisions about the merit of academic research in a liberal democracy.

“The best return comes from letting researchers 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.

“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 short sighted,” they said.

Professor Head said the ARC veto contradicted the federal government’s strong advocacy of free and open intellectual enquiry in Australia. This was a disappointing shift away from steps the government had made to promote humanities when Dan Tehan oversaw the education portfolio, she added, noting that two weeks prior to Robert’s announcement he also moved to divert funding from fundamental research to manufacturing priorities.

“A year, and two ministers, ago university funding models were changed to direct students’ choices away from the humanities, despite evidence that employability for humanities graduates equals or outperforms that of their science counterparts,” Head said.

“Humanities grants overwhelmingly deliver outstanding outcomes on relatively small budgets. They employ early career researchers, essential for the future of Australian education and achievement in languages, literature, history, religion, philosophy. They enhance international research collaborations that keep Australians at the forefront of thinking across our region and the world.”

The ARC Laureate Fellows also raised their concerns over the late timing of the announcement, made on Christmas Eve in 2021, causing a logistical nightmare for successful grants expected to commence their work in the new year and serving as an unexpectedly cruel blow to the six that were vetoed.

“This was a heartless date to give the many unsuccessful applicants news about their applications,” the academics said.


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