This bill, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2021, amends the ARC Act to enable continued financial assistance to be provided for approved research programs administered by the ARC through to 2024-2025. Specifically, this bill alters existing funding allocations for the next three years using an indexation rate, resulting in an additional appropriation of $844 million to 2024-25. I welcome this.
The bill does not affect the substance of the act or operations of the ARC at all, and more’s the pity, because some of the finest minds in the Australian research community tell us that reform is indeed needed.
Let’s see why they’d say that. Late last year, after months of delays, successful ARC Discovery projects were announced on Christmas Eve, with 587 project approved for funding out of 3,096 applications. While the nation was sleeping, 587 projects were slipped under the tree.
This long, drawn-out process was led by the ARC College of Experts, highly skilled, extraordinarily competent, credentialled people, eminent in their fields. They worked through more than 3,000 applications, shortlisted them and then recommended them for funding. The list then went to the minister for education.
So it was the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. But there was some stirring, and six projects never made it down the chimney to the Christmas tree. They went up in ministerial smoke. The acting education minister, Mr Robert, exercised his right to overrule the rigorous ARC review. Minister Robert decided that six of the expert panel recommended grants for research relating to climate activism and China were not, in his view, in the national interest. He put his ministerial red ink through them.
I have been a researcher who has been through the ARC process. I’ve spent countless hours on writing grant applications, extensive literature reviews, careful collation of research teams’ publication records and CVs, endless meetings, project planning rationale, compilation of budgets, proposed student scholarships, and collaborations with other departments and universities. Then comes the first assessment and ranking, then writing, and writing again, rejoinders. Then comes more waiting. Announcement dates are delayed, lives are put on hold and postdoctoral students, in December, are left wondering if they’ll have a job in the following months. It means suspended planning and lives on hold.
All of this is in an environment where university researchers experience less and less career certainty. We have heard speakers in this chamber this afternoon detailing the brain drain to other nations. All of this is in an environment where universities were excluded from JobKeeper.
Finally, then imagine having made the cut, being a winner in the field where less than 20 per cent have success, and being one of the team in those six projects rejected by the minister on the basis that they did not, in his view, demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money or contribute to the national interest.
Professor Lynette Russell, an historian at Monash University and current ARC laureate fellow, described the minister’s veto as ‘a significant constraint against academic freedom’. Let’s be clear about who such laureates are. Laureate fellowships are awarded by the ARC to the most respected professors in their fields, with only 17 granted yearly. Professor Russell said:
Whether it be the test of ‘national interest’ or an excessive focus on a sector like manufacturing, research funding in Australia is becoming political and short-sighted.
Professor Russell went on to say:
Our title is rather telling: we are a college of experts, and I think it’s fair to say the minister is not.
She went on:
The best return comes from letting researchers focus on curiosity-driven research. This has given us mRNA vaccines, the laser, and many other inventions that have lifted the quality of our lives.
Professor Brian Schmidt, the Nobel-Prize-winning astrophysicist and Australian National University vice-chancellor, in his state of the university address said there had been only ‘four known occurrences of political interference’ in the ARC’s grant process, three of which in the last three years. He went on to say:
My strong view, a view held by many university leaders, whether they say it out loud or not, is Australia needs an apolitical system to allocate research funding and a review of the Australian Research Council.
Professor Schmidt said political interference can ‘corrupt knowledge and slow down its creation’. He argued that academic independence is ‘one of democracy’s key advantages over other forms of government’. He said:
[It] allows us to pursue ideas across a broad spectrum of possibilities. We don’t just focus on what is known or thought relevant or acceptable at the time.
The professor asked:
What would our society be like when the study of history, politics and literature has to reflect the views of the minister of the day?
Where would we be if we hadn’t been working on climate mitigation strategies for the past 30 years while the merchants of doubt sowed their seeds?
What if we hadn’t invested in understanding the foundational properties of messenger RNA when it seemed just a dalliance with no practical benefits?
A petition with nearly 1,500 signatories—including those of high-profile authors JM Coetzee, Michelle de Kretser, Alexis Wright and Amanda Lohrey—has called for Minister Robert to reinstate the defunded projects and commit to legislating the complete independence of the ARC from government interference and censorship. They said:
That two-thirds of the six censored grants should be in literary studies demonstrates a dismissive attitude to the value of the imagination and creativity.
They went on:
The actions of the government reveal that it is committed to defunding Australia’s literary culture by overriding academic autonomy and determining what kinds of knowledge can and cannot be pursued. This is especially ironic given its recent campaign to defend freedom of speech on Australia’s campuses.
I want to be clear here: both major parties agree it is appropriate for the minister to wield this power. But I, alongside all of these esteemed academics, would say it is time for this to be reviewed.
A Senate inquiry will now examine the power of ministers to veto research funding, after the Greens successfully referred to the Senate education committee their bill seeking to remove the power. Submissions to that inquiry close on 25 February, and I urge anyone out there who, like me, is concerned about ministerial interference to make a submission to that parliamentary inquiry.