Australian scientists protest at loss of funding board

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Academic community fears lobbying power will be lost to government.

The Australian government has abolished the board of the nation's basic research agency, raising concerns that funding will become susceptible to political interference.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) administered AUS$556 million (US$420 million) in competitive grants this year. Under the current system, recommendations from peer reviews of grant applications are ranked by experts and passed to a board of leading community, industry and academic representatives. They are then sent to the council's chief executive, who passes them to the federal science and education minister, Brendan Nelson, for final approval.

When the board goes in 2006, only the chief executive, Peter Høj, will stand between the peer-review process and the minister.

The government says that removing the board will expedite the grant review process. The restructuring follows a government-commissioned review of all statutory authorities, which recommended that the ARC be governed using an executive management model, not a board.

But many scientists are concerned that the changes will eliminate a crucial buffer to political interference. “It might be administratively cleaner, but it will be a troubling loss of independence,” says Snow Barlow, a plant biologist at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, and president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, near Canberra.

“I think the government is tightening its control,” agrees Frank Larkins, deputy vice-chancellor of research at the University of Melbourne. Recent reviews of the higher-education and research sector have underscored the government's drive for priority-driven research, closer collaborations between industry and academia and a tighter rein on universities (see Nature 429, 118; 200410.1038/429118a).

Abolishing the board would leave the ARC vulnerable to political whim, according to John Mullarvey, chief of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, based in Canberra. “The board is a powerful lobby,” he says. “Unless that lobbying comes from somewhere else, this will have a detrimental impact on Australian research. We don't want projects rejected because they don't fit the ideology of the government.”

He says his committee will work to ensure that the ARC's peer-review process is adequately protected by law.

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Dennis, C. Australian scientists protest at loss of funding board. Nature 436, 451 (2005) doi:10.1038/436451b

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