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Min Tehan restores 3 of 8 rejected ARC

Dan Tehan says a ‘national interest test’ will be introduced for Australian Research Council grants. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP.

Gareth Hutchens, Universities baffled by Coalition’s ‘national interest’ test for public funding, The Guardian, 31 October 2018

Dan Tehan says test would ‘improve public’s confidence’ in funding, but applicants must already meet a national benefit test

Universities Australia has said it does not understand why the government wants to introduce a “national interest test” on Research Council grants for academics, given applicants must already meet a “national benefit” test.

However, it has welcomed the government’s pledge to make public any ministerial veto of a decision to award funding to an academic.

It said the Research Council must be allowed to tell applicants when their research proposal had received expert endorsement but had then been vetoed by a minister.

“That’s important so public servants aren’t put in an impossible position and so researchers know that their proposed research had expert endorsement,” the Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said.

But Jackson said she wasn’t clear why the government was pushing for a “national interest test” when major ARC grants schemes already had a “national benefit” test that asks applicants to outline the benefit to the Australian and international community of their proposed research.

“It is squarely in Australia’s national interest that our researchers are able to push the boundaries of new knowledge and inquire into what makes the world work,” she said. “We have a research funding system based on merit with several layers of expert review that already asks how research will extend benefits to Australia.”

Ministerial veto is provided for under the ARC Act, which came into law in 2001. Under the act, there is no obligation on the minister to explain their decision.

The government announced on Wednesday that academics who wanted to apply for research council funding would have to explain how their proposed projects will “advance the national interest”.

The education minister, Dan Tehan, said a “national interest test” would be introduced to the application process for all future Australian Research Council grant rounds.

He said the government would provide $3bn in grants over the next four years, and the national interest test would “improve the public’s confidence” in why those grants are awarded.

“The value of specific projects may be obvious to the academics who recommend which projects should receive funding but it is not always obvious to a non-academic,” Tehan said. “If you’re asking the Australian taxpayer to fund your research, you should be able to articulate how that research will advance the national interest.

“The new national interest test will apply for all future grant rounds that are yet to open.”

A furore erupted last week when it was revealed in Senate estimates that the former education minister Simon Birmingham blocked 11 grants, worth $4m, in the humanities that had been approved by the Australian Research Council.

Labor accused Birmingham – who is now the trade minister – of pandering to “knuckle-dragging rightwing philistines”, but Birmingham defended his decision.

It was revealed that Birmingham disallowed $1.4m of discovery grants for topics including a history of men’s dress from 1870-1970, “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms” and “post-orientalist arts in the Strait of Gibraltar”.

He also blocked $1m of early career awards announced in November 2017, including a $330,000 grant for research into legal secularism in Australia and $336,000 for a project titled “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist”.

Birmingham said on Twitter last week: “I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’. Do you disagree [Senator Kim Carr]? Would Labor simply say yes to anything?”

On Tuesday, the Australian Catholic University joined other peak university bodies in expressing dismay at Birmingham’s “political interference”.

Leaders of all 39 universities urged Tehan to follow expert advice and not exercise such a veto in future and to report to the public about such cases.

“I am deeply dismayed that the former minister for education would veto these expert recommendations by the ARC,” the ACU’s vice-chancellor, Greg Craven, said.

“His political interference undermines the peer-review system, which is designed to ensure academic integrity. The secretive nature of the interference is particularly troubling.”

On Wednesday Tehan said ARC grants ranged in size from $30,000 to $8m a year and he wanted to ensure taxpayers had confidence in how the money was spent.

“Academic freedom and free speech do not require grant funding to exist,” he said. “Government funding is only one source of research funding. If a project has merit it can also be funded directly by the university, from the private sector or other non-government sources.

“As minister for education, I can guarantee the sector that I will be transparent in reporting ARC grant funding decisions.

“I have asked the ARC to add an additional category to the grant outcomes so applicants are notified of instances where a project is ‘recommended to but not funded by the minister’.”

Universities Australia welcomed his decision to be more transparent about ministerial vetoes, saying it was a “step forward”.

“While it doesn’t abolish the ministerial veto power, the public and the researchers should know if a minister has rejected expert advice – so a commitment to public reporting is important,” it said.

Labor’s innovation and industry spokesman, Kim Carr, told Guardian Australia that Tehan was ignorant of grant application process.

“The very justification [Tehan] used for the measuring of the national interest, he said was about their impact, that’s already contained in the application process,” he said. “The minister is peddling ignorance and thinks that the government can spin their way out of trouble. It’s crass cretinism.”

The Australian Greens’ education spokesperson, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, has also criticised the plan, asking how the government will define “national interest”.

“When the Liberals and Nationals say national interest, we know what they really mean,” she said. “They have such a narrow understanding of the importance of research in all fields, who knows what will be on the chopping block. Perhaps the minister would like to cut off research relating to trade unions, climate change or asylum seekers?

“A national interest test is a smoke screen for allowing the government of the day to insert their political priorities into the independent research approval process.”

Writing an opinion piece for Fairfax Media on Wednesday, the author of the paper that was ridiculed by Birmingham on Twitter last week, Roger Benjamin, explained what his research grant was about.

“Misquoted by him and in Senate Estimates, the full title of my 2017 project, was ‘Double Crossings: post-Orientalist arts at the Strait of Gibraltar’,” Benjamin wrote.

“Double crossing refers to the way painters and photographers crisscrossed the 15 kilometres of the most politically contested water in the world – Europe to Africa, Muslim to Christian worlds – in search of arresting images of other cultures.

“It’s ironic to see academic endeavours double crossed by a minister for education who dismissed them on the basis of a nine-word title.”