Close this search box.
John Ross views revised ARC funding approvals

John Ross, The Haldane principle, Times Higher Education, 6 February 2024

Good morning,

The Haldane principle seems widely accepted in many parts of the world, but not so much in Australia. It holds that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers, rather than politicians.

It’s a simple principle, really. While the government might determine the rules of the game, it leaves the selection of contestants to those in the know. The sports minister doesn’t pick the Olympic beach volleyball team, for example. The tourism minister doesn’t pick the beach.

But the distinction seemed lost on shadow science minister Paul Fletcher, who resorted to a well-worn tactic – mockery – when explaining why former education minister Stuart Robert had seen fit to kibosh a paltry 1 per cent of the grants presented for his signature.

“So that Australians can draw their own conclusions, let me just mention the titles of three of the projects which were rejected,” Fletcher told parliament on Tuesday. “‘Spectacles, dress and second-wave feminism in the Philippines’ – that was the first. ‘Queer Tokyo: a cultural history’ was the second. ‘Beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms’ – that was the third.”

It’s the pub test argument. Salt of the earth Aussies, who – unlike those ivory tower types, have an MA in common sense – recognise value when they see it. The pub test is often deployed against research proposals in the humanities, less so in STEM. What would your average Aussie Joe, halfway through his third schooner of Kosciuszko Pale Ale, make of a project titled “Synthesis and Characterization of Novel Zirconium Oxide-Crystalline Cerium(IV)Hydrogen Phosphate/ Polybenzimidazole, Polyaniline, Polyindole, Polycarbazole, Nanocomposites”?

The many supporters of the bill to reform the Australian Research Council believe it will prevent ministers from spiking grants because they don’t like projects’ names. But some commentators have warned against unintended consequences (see article below).

The specific worry is that the treatment of ARC schemes’ funding rules – as legislative instruments subject to disallowance motions – opens the door to new types of intervention and delay, as opposition and cross-benchers haggle, filibuster and road-test speculative clauses banning any project containing the word “queer”.

There are two reasons not to worry too much about this. One is that all known instances of meddling so far have come from the government, not the opposition or cross-benchers. The other is that the funding guidelines apply as soon as they’re registered – not after the time frame for disallowance motions has run its course – so there’s little risk of added delays.

The bigger risk is that the opposition reverses these reforms after it finds its way back into government. It surely has principles, but Haldane isn’t one of them.

– John Ross, Asia-Pacific editor
[email protected]

Senate committee overlooks warnings of unintended consequences from Australian Research Council reform, saying bill is ‘overwhelmingly’ supported.

Volunteer zoo Keeper petting an old female Galapagos tortoise
Source: iStock

Australian politicians have shrugged off concerns that legislation designed to prevent the veto of research grants could backfire because entire schemes will be subject to parliamentary “disallowance”.

Universities and representative bodies have warned that measures in a bill to overhaul the Australian Research Council (ARC) Act could slow down funding and encourage political interference. Their worries centre on the proposal to expose ARC funding rules to parliamentary scrutiny through “normal disallowance processes”, according to the bill’s explanatory memorandum.

This approach would “strengthen the integrity of the ARC grant allocation process”, the Department of Education explained in a submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, which has been conducting an inquiry into the bill.

The reforms were recommended in a review prompted by protracted delays in ARC funding and ministerial quashing of at least 22 ARC-endorsed grants. While submissions were “overwhelmingly supportive” of the bill’s intent, according to the committee’s now released report, many disputed the fine print.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) said there was no need to make ARC funding rules disallowable by parliament. Deputy vice-chancellor Kate McGrath said federal funding rules did not require grant guidelines to be tabled before parliament, let alone subject to disallowance.

“This approval pathway [may] unduly burden the work of parliament while also risking exposure to the political interference that the bill is intended to avoid,” her submission warned. “The funding rules [should be] tabled in parliament but not subject to disallowance.”

The University of Sydney said the proposal risked “holding up” funding rounds. “Schemes cannot be released, applied for or assessed unless the funding rules for each grant opportunity are approved,” its submission said. “We recommend that the approval pathway mirrors that of other government funding programmes.”

Science & Technology Australia shared the concerns. “Parliamentary oversight of ARC scheme funding rules must not cause undue delays,” its submission insisted.

Stakeholders also bristled at a clause requiring universities to give the ARC “regular independent auditor statements” about their compliance with the schemes’ terms and conditions.

“The certifications and annual reporting already undertaken by grant-eligible organisations…provide sufficient measures of assurance,” Sydney complained, in comments echoed by UTS and the Group of Eight.

While noting such concerns, the committee overlooked them. “The bill will have a timely positive effect on the ARC,” said committee chair Tony Sheldon, who recommended that the legislation be passed unamended.

In additional comments at the end of the report, non-government senators also ignored the warnings about delays. But Greens deputy leader Mehreen Faruqi criticised the intention to allow ministerial vetoes of research grants for “international relations” reasons.

“[This] could be interpreted broadly and lead to unintended consequences,” Dr Faruqi warned. “The ARC independent review recommended the minister have power to veto funding for national security reasons only, but this bill goes further.”

Liberal Party committee members, in contrast, said the reduction of ministerial veto powers was their “primary” concern. “Effectively outsourcing research decisions to a board which is unaccountable to the parliament removes important democratic safeguards,” they said. “[It] also suggests that the board…is more informed about our nation’s priorities than the elected government.”

The bill, which was introduced into the House of Representatives in November, could be debated as early as 6 February, with both houses of parliament sitting this week.

[email protected]