University Research Under Veto

Nov 5, 2018

Veto action on certain successful Australian Research Council research proposals together with a proposal to establish a “national interest” test by federal Ministers for Education reflect poorly on the independence and integrity of university research and research training.

University Vice-Chancellors are quite rightly disturbed by the actions and statements of the former Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, and his replacement, Dan Tehan. In their statement of 30 October, they condemned the decision of Minister Birmingham to veto 11 grants approved by the Australian Research Council (ARC). In the Sydney Morning Herald (2 November), Duncan Ivison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Sydney University, stated that the proposal by Minister Tehan to add a “national interest” test to the ARC approvals process was “unwise”. Both these actions deserve to be revoked. They can be seen as detrimental to higher education in this country not just because they impact adversely on the integrity and independence of university research, but more broadly they undermine the global value of our universities, a matter of no little significance to our economy and international relations.

I have no argument with the right of the Australian Government to request the ARC (or its medical equivalent, NH&MRC) to nominate research fields that may be seen of national importance, and if necessary to highlight such areas as priority for funding. I served on the Council in the 90s and following a review of geology and geophysics which I chaired, it was agreed that the ARC should make geophysics a priority area. At the time, university research and training was deficient in geophysics, an area of great relevance to mineral exploration. But this is as far as government intervention in the processes and outcomes of ARC should go, unless there were demonstrated cases of malpractice. I recognise that ARC application already requires stipulation of potential “national benefit” but that should not be seen as a determining factor in assessment. As noted in the article in the SMH by Professor Ivison (2/11/18), the Minister has access to the answers, and the Chief Scientist provides a list of priorities to encourage what can be seen as crucial national issues; but at that point the Government, specifically the Education Minister must butt out.

I take the view that universities are primarily about knowledge creation and dissemination. These two roles are intimately linked through research, scholarship, teaching and professional training. Underpinning these functions is the principle of academic freedom. This involves acceptance by society in the independence and integrity of the university system. As a former Vice-Chancellor, academic freedom was a core component of my role in supporting staff and students in their respective endeavours. At times this led to uncomfortable situations. It was quite natural for me then to accept this principle in the way the ARC operates. I was quite proud of being involved with like-minded academics and other government appointed members of the ARC in developing and implementing processes of assessment of proposals. As Ivison says “it is in the national interest to have a rigorous, independent, peer-reviewed process to drive research excellence”.

It is quite disturbing to find Ministerial intervention with this well-established practice. As pointed out to his staff at Macquarie University in condemning the interference, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor S. Bruce Dowton, highlighted how such action could undermine confidence in a system that requires international engagement. It is a system built on trust and an enormous amount of conscientious work from applicants, support staff within universities, peer reviewers and often collaborators from other institutions both in Australia and overseas. Academics are under pressure to apply and reapply for the highly competitive ARC grants. To have the rug pulled from under them at a stage when all has seemingly been successful is damaging to individuals concerned as well as to Australia’s reputation in the academic world. Roger Benjamin from Sydney University, whose application was disallowed by Minister Birmingham, said in the SMH on 31 October, that ARC grant funds benefit young academics in training. Such grants often embrace a team of scientists and scholars who collectively are in a position to not just expand the knowledge base, but also foster the next generation of academics on whom the university system depends for its long-term health.

The issue of what constitutes a “national interest” test as proposed by Minister Tehan should be a matter of concern to all those who value and treasure the role of universities in this country. Much that goes on in the minds of academics relates to their intellectual skills and backgrounds driven by curiosity, imagination and a desire to transmit the knowledge they generate. While many academics may quite properly undertake research that is directed towards particular applied outcomes, there are, and must be, those free to think about, research, debate and create new knowledge. It may be much later that such knowledge is seen as having a direct social or economic impacts by others in different organisations. My own experience in coastal science is pertinent in this regard. In this round of veto action it was the humanities and arts that were singled out. However,  in future, in the words of Professor Ivison: “What’s to stop a minister from rejecting proposals focussed on controversial areas of scientific research such as climate change for example, or gene editing”.

 I hope that all four learned academies come in behind the Vice-Chancellors and make it very clear to the Australian Government that it is NOT in Australia’s national interest for Ministers to intervene at the stage when research proposals have gone through a rigorous, and often internationally reviewed process. The ARC is established as an independent body and works to guidelines set by Government. In such circumstances it should be left to its own devices to implement an approvals process.

Emeritus Professor Bruce Thom AM, FTSE, former Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) University of Sydney, and former Vice-Chancellor, University of New England.     

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