Undue influence? University grants questioned after ASPI US-funded research

Dec 15, 2020

The Australian Research Council launched an investigation into Australian academics solely on the basis of US government-funded research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The day after The Australian newspaper published a story accusing 32 academics at Australian universities of being part of program providing research to the Chinese military, the Australian Research Council (ARC) wrote to universities demanding they investigate individual academics who had applied for government research grants.

The sole basis for that demand, ARC officials told universities, was a report written by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and paid for by the US State Department.

The Australian’s article, co-authored by Sharri Markson and Kylar Loussikian, raised concerns over the Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese government scholarship and grant-based recruitment program to halt the brain drain of Chinese academics moving overseas.

Two key experts interviewed for the article were the ASPI analyst who wrote the US-funded report and a New Zealand academic who is an ASPI associate.

Markson and Loussikian wrote, “Australian academics are giving the Chinese Communist Party access to their technology and inventions where there is the risk they could be used for military or intelligence purposes.”

The Australian did not provide any proof to substantiate this claim or to back up the allegations of misconduct levelled at the mostly Chinese born academics who had received Commonwealth research grant money in Australia.

Research applications from these academics had already undergone three levels of Australian government checks by the ARC, the Australian National Audit office and assessment against Department of Defence export control regulations.

A Senate inquiry was told no concerns had been raised by any government bodies in relation to the research applications, yet The Australian published the names and photographs of all 32 academics.

Among those ‘named and shamed’ were many who had called Australia home for decades. The overwhelming majority engage in research that is not in any discernible way connected to military applications.

Their fields of study include food science, immunology, orthodontics, osteoarthritis, data analysis, optics, environmental systems modelling, sea ice ecology, plant physiology, marine science, climate change, clean energy, renewable energy, textiles, ceramics, solar cell technology and healthcare database development. 

The Research Council reacts

The ARC is the government body that administers federal grants for university research. In its correspondence to universities, the ARC stated that academics had been identified as having connections to Chinese universities which ASPI had rated as “high risk”.

The letter’s author, ARC’s Chief Programs Officer Kathie Dent, identified the ASPI research and included a web link to ASPI’s China Defence Universities Tracker.

The tracker identifies 159 Chinese universities with alleged links to military or weapons manufacturers, with 92 labelled as “high risk”.

The ASPI report, which the ARC relied upon to launch its investigation, was entirely funded by a $190,000 grant from the US State Department.

Neither the ARC nor The Australian reported that one of the supposed “high risk” academics had no links to any Chinese government research programs and that ASPI, and its analyst Alex Joske, were forced to issue a public apology.

ARC questioned by Senator

It emerged in a Senate Committee hearing in October that the ARC relied solely on the ASPI report, with CEO Professor Sue Thomas confirming the letter had been sent to the universities.

Under questioning from Labor Senator Kim Carr, she admitted that the Go8 (Group of Eight), which represents Australia’s top research universities, had expressed serious misgivings about the accuracy of the ASPI research in a letter to the ARC.

When asked specifically about those concerns Professor Thomas stated, “Universities feel it [ASPI research] is not a good source of information.”

Carr pointed out, “There have been occasions when the institute [ASPI] has actually got the wrong university, got the wrong person and got the wrong country! Is that true or not?”

Professor Thomas responded, “There was one instance… I can’t remember the details of who it was about, we would prefer not to comment on individuals.”

Carr countered, “The point is he’s been commented upon. He’s been pilloried across the country. You put out, on the basis of this material, statements to these universities a day after this article appeared; that’s the case, isn’t it?”

“It was fairly soon after,” was the response from the ARC chief.

The News Corp investigation 

In August, The Australian’s Markson emailed a list of questions to at least 32 academics at leading universities across Australia.

The primary basis for these questions appeared to be the ASPI report, which contained false information.

The academics were asked about links to the Chinese government and whether they were giving the Chinese Communist Party access to research related to “military or intelligence purposes”.

According to evidence later presented by the ARC to a Senate Estimates committee, there had been no irregularities in relation to their applications.

Separate to that, academic grants are assessed against the Defence Export Control Act, which prohibits the sharing of defence technology with foreign governments.

When asked how many academics in Australia had breached these controls—a central allegation of The Australian’s report—the ARC chief responded: “Zero that I am aware of.”

Carr then put to the ARC: “Someone puts some scurrilous material in a Murdoch newspaper, you decide that you’re now going to run this jihad against some of our most prominent scholars.”

The “corroborating” experts

Aside from ASPI’s Alex Joske, Markson and Loussikian sought comment from Matthew Henderson, a vocal anti-China campaigner with conservative UK think-tank Henry Jackson Society. Its co-founder, Matthew Jamison, quit in 2017, saying it had become a “far-right … racist organisation, run in the most dictatorial, corrupt and undemocratic fashion”.

The other expert quoted was Canterbury University (NZ) Professor Anne-Marie Brady. Several weeks earlier Professor Brady had co-authored a report on alleged Chinese military infiltration of NZ universities that was published by the US government-funded Wilson Center, of which she is a fellow.

Markson’s story did not mention that Brady was also an associate of ASPI, with a profile page on its website.

Support from former Howard minister

The ABC, which a recent APAC News investigation revealed has provided significant favourable coverage of ASPI’s work, conducted an in-depth interview with Alex Joske on Radio National. The interviewer was Amanda Vanstone.

A former Howard government cabinet minister, Vanstone is enmeshed in the defence establishment. She sits on the board of long time ASPI sponsor Lockheed Martin.

In interviewing ASPI’s Joske, Vanstone did not disclose that her company had paid his think-tank $160,000 in the past two years alone.

Band of Brothers: Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defence

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