AG ‘national interest test’ to align research
Education Minister Dan Tehan will introduce a national interest test for research grants. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen.
Michael Koziol, ‘National interest test’ to align research with security and strategic priorities, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 2018
A new “national interest test” to apply to academic research grants will give ministers the power to block funding for projects that do not align with Australia’s security, foreign policy and strategic interests.
Fairfax Media understands the test announced by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan last week has been designed with one eye squarely on China and its growing influence at Australia’s major research universities.
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released last week pointed to the booming collaboration between Australian universities and Chinese military scientists.
In particular, it identified the University of NSW as second only to a Singaporean institution for publications with academics linked to the People’s Liberation Army over the past decade.
Under the new test, academics will need to demonstrate their research aligns with the country’s international and strategic interests if they are to receive part of the $3 billion the Australian Research Council will hand out over the next four years.
Researchers are already required to show how their project benefits Australia. But Mr Tehan has said a new national interest test is required to “improve the public’s confidence” in the grants system after it was revealed his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, vetoed 11 arts and humanities grants that were recommended to the government by the ARC.
However, the proposed test has been in the works since Mr Tehan took over the portfolio, and Fairfax Media understands one of its key aims is to give the minister powers to block research deemed to undermine Australia’s national security or diplomatic interests.
The ARC is developing the framework in conjunction with the decision of government.
“The national interest test will apply specifically to ARC grants and will ask applicants to clearly articulate to the responsible minister how their research will benefit the nation,” Mr Tehan said.
“This might be in the form of economic, commercial, social, environmental or cultural impact.”
Mr Tehan said universities were best-placed to make their own judgments about working with overseas academics, but collaborations must “satisfy all relevant Australian laws and security requirements”.
UNSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs – who also chairs the Group of Eight research universities – has for the past two weeks refused to be interviewed about the collaborations with PLA-linked academics at his university.
In an emailed statement, Professor Jacobs said UNSW “engages in collaborative research with many international partners as part of our work as a globally engaged university”, including China.
“In all of our collaborative work, UNSW conducts rigorous assessments as required by the Australian Government’s Defence Export Controls framework,” he said.
A review of that legislation – which is separate to the proposed national interest test – has been completed by former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom and handed to the government.
The ASPI report – titled Picking flowers, making honey – also put the Australian National University in the top 10 for collaborations with PLA-linked academics. It said that on 17 occasions, academics had used “cover” to obscure their military affiliations.
Currently, education ministers can veto research grants recommended by the ARC without publishing a reason. Under Mr Tehan’s changes, ministers will be required to publish reasons if they block a recommended grant.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson welcomed the commitment to transparency but said the national interest test was redundant given the funding system was “based on merit with several layers of expert review that already asks how research will extend benefits to Australia”.
Universities were aghast to learn at Senate estimates last month that Senator Birmingham had vetoed 11 projects, worth more than $4 million, in the first use of the ministerial veto since the mid-2000s.
Senator Birmingham, who is now Trade Minister, mocked one of the vetoed projects – titled “Post-orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar” – as something taxpayers would not want their money to subsidise.