The Australian Research Council has a new acting chief executive amid crossfire between academics and the minister over the government vetoing research grants.
Acting federal education minister Stuart Robert has appointed Judi Zielke — the CSIRO’s chief operating officer — as acting chief executive of the research council.
An ARC spokesperson told The Mandarin Zielke would be in the role while the search for a new CEO occurs in a process due to open on Friday.
Former chief executive Sue Thomas finished her time as ARC chief after almost five years at the end of January.
“[Zielke] has extensive experience in the public sector in areas of policy advice, and implementation with positions held in Trade, Attorney General’s, Industry and Innovation and Infrastructure,” a research council statement said.
Academics have condemned Robert’s decision to veto six research grants that had been recommended by an independent process for funding, based on his view the projects didn’t serve the national interest.
Two members of the council’s College of Experts — Andrew Francis and Aidan Sims — quit in protest over Robert’s decision, which had became public on Christmas Eve 2021.
The duo say the appearance of the minister applying a “pub test” to determine whether research was in the national interest and to justify spending taxpayer money was at the centre of their outrage.
“Assessing value for money requires expertise: the expected benefit of research can be deep and very real, without being superficially visible,” they wrote in The Conversation.
Francis and Sims said the college provided these expertise, with at least two members poring over proposal documents alongside four subject experts making assessments.
“By and large this arduous process, though imperfect, works,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, the ARC is undertaking a process of developing its grant guidelines, which it usually undertakes every two years. An ARC spokesperson said the guidelines helped to “foster innovation and blue sky research in Australia’s national interest”.
The development will involve revisions aimed at enhancing the National Interest Test and increasing its transparency, according to the ARC website.