Students rarely see the work that the academics of UWA put into grant applications year in and year out. The closest that most of us will come to it is periods of absence from a supervisor as they network with their colleagues at other universities to discussion potential collaborations and ponder questions of research they could pursue, consult their Associate Deans of Research and the Office of Research Enterprise to navigate the process of application and finally knuckle down and write knowing full well that their odds of success are slim but this is just par for the course in academia life.
We as an institution ask this of them to fight over the nearly $800 million in funding available from the Australian Research Council (ARC) as part of the National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP). The typical peer review process beyond application involves the assignment of assessors normally done by calling on a recommendation from the College of Experts; academics sourced from across the country and considered leaders in their fields. These assessors then grade and provide feedback to the applicant who is able to address any concerns before final grading. After which eligibility checks are made and a Selection Advisory Committee meets to recommend the top research proposals to the ARC CEO and finally the Minister for Education for approval. This may all seem rather dry and tedious for a Pelican article but the point here is that the process the ARC has committed to is one of academic excellence, peer review and with precautions taken to keep it free from conflicts of interest and politics.
Now within the Australian Research Council Bill the power for the distribution of ARC funds has always ultimately laid with the Minister. They approve the recommendations made to them by the ARC but can also deny funding to any proposal. This is a power that the Minister holds but very rarely wields outside a few occasions. In 2004 and 2005 then Minister Brendan Nelson exercised veto power to a number of projects which garnered Australia international notoriety at the time and last year former Minister Simon Birmingham vetoed 11 projects, all of which were related to the humanities and social sciences as was revealed during a Senate Inquiry last week. Universities Australia, the Group of Eight, the National Tertiary Education Union and the Council of Postgraduate Associations have all released statements condemning the former Minister for the decision and as of 31st, our own Guild Council has passed a motion in a similar vein condemning Birmingham. Vicki Thompson of the Go8 states:
“This is a Government that demands freedom of speech on campus but at the same time walks all over academic freedom; a Government that, without transparency or explanation secretly vetoes some $4 million in research projects that have undergone a rigorous peer review process and have been judged worthy for recommendation to the Minister by the ARC”
It was hoped that the current Minister Dan Tehan would set a better example than his predecessor and he was quick to ensure that greater transparency would follow should veto powers be used again, a protocol that Senator Kim Carr, former Minister for Innovation, Science and Research and leader of the questioning during the recent Senate inquiry, actually instated. However Tehan has also seen fit to double down that it fell solely to him to “ensure taxpayers had confidence in how their money was spent”, a statement that not only oozes hubris but smacks the collective faces of some 100+ experts in all disciplines that collectively judge and recommend these grants against criteria that include “Aims, significance and expected outcomes” and “Research impact” before they land on his desk. This is not to say that universities nationwide don’t have significant challenges to face when it comes to building public trust and faith in them as institutions of academic rigour and excellence. The Go8 have recently published a report from London Economics measuring their contribution to the national economy alone to be $66.4 billion with a return on investment in research of 10:1 to combat this very issue. But to undermine the process by which an independent body of academics suggests the distribution of funds because you don’t see value in the research in question, or it contravenes your views, or you’re acutely aware of an impending 2019 election and need to appease your voter base erodes not only the public trust but the trust of those very academics that apply.
With declining application numbers each year and the work required to put together a strong application a lack of confidence in the process can be dangerous. A strong academic that doesn’t apply to a Discovery Grant or Future Fellowship because they feel their topic won’t impress the Minister loses out on funding. Those are stipends to PhD students who want to study in that field. Even after they graduate, will those students feel confident in applying for Developmental Early Career Researcher Awards and secure themselves a job in academia?
The government is calling for research that serves the national interest and is due to review the ARC’s Science and Research priorities from a panel that the Minister will appoint. They are happy to tout the promise of committing $9.6 billion in funding to Research and Innovation while casually ignoring the figure was $10.4 billion a year ago and have once again not hesitated to deny support to extending our knowledge of culture, history and the arts while also committing $444 million to the Barrier Reef Foundation with next to no due diligence. All I can say is I suggest the ARC take a leaf out of Captain America’s playbook; “we may not be perfect Tony [read ScoMo], but the safest hands are still our own.”
Peter is the President of the Postgraduate Students’ Association, a PhD student studying Chemistry, Guild hack through and through running with Launch in 2016 and STAR in 2018 and wasn’t turned to dust in Thanos’ snap.
If you agree and want to voice your concerns you can support the NTEU campaign ‘Hands Off Our ARC’ at https://www.nteu.org.au/policy/research/former_minister_vetoed_research_grants or use the attached template to write to Minister Tehan here.
Excerpt from Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee (25/10/18)
Senator KIM CARR: I take it all of these came recommended by the ARC and had gone through the normal selection process?
Prof. Thomas: Yes.
Senator KIM CARR: What reasons were given for their rejection?
Prof. Thomas: The minister is the decision-maker.
Senator KIM CARR: But were there any reasons given?
Prof. Thomas: Not to me.
Senator PRATT: So much for academic freedom!
Member of the committee interjecting—
Senator KIM CARR: If I could, thank you.
Senator PRATT: Sorry.
Senator KIM CARR: There was a protocol in place. There’s been no other occasion on which grants have been rejected in the last five years?
Prof. Thomas: I’ll defer to Leanne, who’s been here longer.
Ms Harvey: No, just the ones that—
Senator KIM CARR: This is the first that’s happened. The last time this happened, if I recall rightly, was Minister Nelson.
Ms Harvey: I believe so. That’s before my time at the ARC.
Senator KIM CARR: That’s right, but not before mine. There was in fact a protocol put in place that if a minister rejected a grant it had to be publicly declared. Has that been abandoned?
Ms Harvey: That was protocol put in place by a previous minister—
Senator KIM CARR: By me, yes.
Media Release regarding report by London Economics commissioned by the Go8 – https://www.go8.edu.au/economic-impact-go8-universities
Grant application process – https://www.arc.gov.au/grants
Condemnation statements from:
Barrier Reef captains call – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-09/barrier-reef-foundation-grant-shocking-myer-former-board-member/10090780