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Australia plans ‘national-interest’ test for research grants

The move comes after academics protested a minister’s decision to cancel projects recommended by funders.

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Simon Birmingham

Former education minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 research projects recommended by peer-review panels.Credit: Xinhua/eyevine

Australia’s government is set to introduce a ‘national-interest test’ for research projects seeking grant funding from next year.

The policy will require that researchers outline how their project will advance the country’s interests, said education minister Dan Tehan in a statement released on 31 October. “The value of specific projects may be obvious to the academics who recommend which projects should receive funding, but it is not always obvious to a non-academic,” he said.

The test will apply to future project applications seeking money from the Australian Research Council (ARC), a major funder of research in both the sciences and the humanities.

Research groups and academics have criticized the decision, saying that grant assessments already demand a description of a project’s potential benefits and impact.

“Given the ARC’s expert panels already consider national benefit and impact when making their assessments, how will a new test add value and not just more redtape?” the Australian Academy of the Humanities tweeted.

The policy announcement comes days after news emerged that the previous education minister, Simon Birmingham, used his authority to reject 11 grant applications that had been recommended for ARC funding by independent peer-review panels in 2017 and 2018. The rejected projects were in the humanities, and included titles such as ‘Price, metals and materials in the global exchange’, ‘Greening media sport’ and ‘Rioting and the literary archive’.

Little transparency

Although the education minister has the power to reject recommended projects, that right is rarely exercised. Birmingham has not provided his reasons for rejecting the projects. On 26 October, he tweeted: “I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.”

Academics said that Birmingham should have respected the panel's recommendations and were also upset that his decisions were not made public at the time.

In today’s announcement, Tehan said that he would guarantee greater transparency in the reporting of grant-funding decisions. “I have asked the ARC to add an additional category to the grant outcomes so applicants are notified of instances where a project is recommended to but not funded by the minister,” he said.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07255-7

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