Australian Research Council Amendment (Ensuring Research Independence Bill) 2018
The Australian Political Studies Association (AusPSA) is the professional association for those teaching and researching politics and international relations in Australia and is dedicated to promoting and facilitating work in the discipline. This submission has been authored and endorsed by the AusPSA Executive on behalf of its members, many of whom currently hold, or have previously held, funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), and have participated in the peer review of grant applications submitted to the ARC.
Repeal of Subsection 51(1) of the Australian Research Council Act 2001
The current requirement under ss 51(1) that the Minister approve a proposal as one ‘deserving financial assistance’ compromises the integrity of the Australian Research Council and its ability to generate world-class research through competitive funding. AusPSA strongly supports the repeal of subsection 51(1) of the Australian Research Council Act 2001 for the following reasons:
- Exercising the veto power devalues the work and the time of researchers, denigrates the integrity of the research community and the competitive grants process, and undermines confidence and job security of researchers
- The Ministerial veto threatens academic freedom
- There is no reasonable justification for the Minister to maintain a veto power
- Other similar bodies (i.e. NHMRC) are not subject to Ministerial veto
Undermining the competitive grants process
A lengthy, rigorous and highly competitive process is used to decide which projects ought to be funded by the ARC. Proposals are judged by panels of independent, eminent experts in each field of research. Funding is recommended on the basis that the projects are significant, innovative, and will transform knowledge in the field. We strongly support expert review. It is the cornerstone of research project funding systems around the world. A choice to exercise Ministerial veto in the research grants system tarnishes international confidence in Australian research and our reputation for research excellence.
The core criteria that are used by assessors to recommend projects for funding are rigorous, transparent and serve the national interest. They are vigorously applied by experts who have a clear understanding of research excellence and quality. By contrast, the legislative criterion of ‘deserving financial assistance’ as it applies to the Minister is vague and invites judgment based on political or ideological considerations – irrespective of which political party holds office. Subsection 51(1) has the potential effect, therefore, of undermining the Guidelines and published assessment criteria administered by the ARC and approved by the Minister.
Threatening academic freedom
The use of a Ministerial veto undermines academic freedom, and has a chilling effect on future research inquiry and researcher development. It allows a Minister to decide they simply don’t like or object to a research topic, irrespective of the merits of the project. It is particularly disappointing to note that in the Discovery Project 2022 round all six vetoed projects were in the humanities and social sciences. All these projects ought to have their funding reinstated, and a formal apology issued to the researchers involved for the harms caused to them and their careers. There has been disrespectful political and media commentary on these research projects since Christmas Eve 2021, when funding was announced and the Ministerial vetoes became public knowledge.
We especially condemn the veto of the project “New Possibilities: Student climate action and democratic renewal”. This project is led by long-term APSA member, Associate Professor Philippa Collin of Western Sydney University, and the team included both senior and early career Chief Investigators from four other universities: ANU, University of Melbourne, RMIT and University of Sydney.
The project was recommended for funding by the ARC. It sought to understand the role of Australian students in the global School Strike for Climate movement, and how their actions are changing representative democracy. It was purposefully designed to document and understand how young people are successfully encouraging reluctant elders, including politicians, to ‘listen to the science’ and avert a global warming catastrophe. The transformation of democracy, inclusion and representation of the views of young people, and creation of citizen-centric policy to avert climate change, are all core social science research topics for our times.
No justification for an unfettered Ministerial veto
Similar to international best practice, there must be a clear separation between the means and procedures to determine the worth of a grant application (though the ARC) and the authorization of the recommended funding. The latter should be the Minister’s role as the person with delegated authority on behalf of the Parliament to expend the funding provided for grants. The only conceivable reason as to why a Minister could decline to approve funding for recommended projects is if there is malfeasance, bias, or some other inappropriate behaviour on the part of the ARC.
The recommendations of comparable agencies are not subject to Ministerial veto
The NHMRC, which provides competitive Australian government funding to researchers working in the fields of health and medical sciences, is accountable to the Health Minister but the Minister plays no formal role in the authorization of funding.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which provides competitive funding to researchers through its network of Research Councils is a non-departmental government body, sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Decisions on which research projects to fund are made independently from government, through expert peer review based on the quality and likely impact of the research. This principle, known as the ‘Haldane Principle’, is enshrined in the legislative instrument establishing the UKRI.1
In Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is the federal agency that supports research and research training in the Humanities and Social sciences. The system of merit review adopted by the SSHRC sees proposals evaluated by expert reviewers against published criteria, while the authorization of funding is the responsibility of the SSHRC.2
The European Research Council’s (ERC) core mission is to ‘encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields’. The sole criterion for the award of funding is ‘scientific excellence’ – thereby recognizing the best research and talent rather than being ‘led by priorities set by politicians’. With this approach, the ERC ‘aims to make the European research base more prepared to respond to the needs of a knowledge-based society and provide Europe with the capabilities in frontier research necessary to meet global challenges’.3
Subsection 51(1) and the practice of exercising Ministerial veto over ARC grant recommendations leaves Australia out of step with international best practices of competitive research funding that aims to solve global economic and social challenges through independent research and discovery.
In sum, the AusPSA strongly supports the repeal of subsection 51(1) of the Australian Research Council Act 2001.
On behalf of the members of the AusPSA, thank you for considering this submission.
Australian Political Studies Association
22 February 2022
1 Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (UK) c. 29, Part 3, s 103.
2 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 2022. ‘Merit Review’. https://www.sshrc- crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/merit_review-evaluation_du_merite/index-eng.aspx
3 European Research Council. 2022. ‘Mission’. https://erc.europa.eu/about-erc/mission