Researchers in Australia have endorsed a proposal to remove government ministers’ power to veto grant-funding decisions made by expert science committees. They say this veto ability is just one example of Australia’s political overreach in research, and is a threat to academic freedom.
Legislators in Australia are considering whether to amend a law to remove the minister for education’s right to veto projects recommended for grants by one of the country’s major research-funding agencies, the Australian Research Council (ARC). The proposed amendment is part of a Parliamentary inquiry into political interference in research funding.
Acting education minister Stuart Robert vetoed six ARC projects in December, sparking outrage in the research community and prompting the inquiry.
Brian Schmidt, a Nobel laureate and vice-chancellor of the Australian National University in Canberra, told the inquiry on 9 March that the “independence of the research grant process is a core part of how liberal democracies work”. He said the veto was affecting universities’ ability to attract overseas talent and was damaging to the national interest.
So far, 80 submissions have been made to the inquiry, including from the Australian Academy of Sciences and Universities Australia. Most of these are in support of removing the veto. Only four oppose the amendment; one is from the ARC itself, which argues that the amendment would “undermine the Minister’s responsibility” and weaken parliamentary oversight of research funding. The Senate inquiry is expected to release a report sometime this month.
“It’s beyond time that politicians heard directly from researchers and universities about how political interference harms them and the work they do,” says Senator Mehreen Faruqi, who instigated the inquiry and proposal to end the veto and who is the spokesperson on education for the Australian Greens party.
Robert’s decision to disallow funding for projects is the third such incident in the past five years — and only the fourth in the ARC’s 21-year history. The six projects involved were in the humanities. They included research on student climate activism, a study on friendship in early English literature and two projects on modern China. Most ARC projects typically receive between Aus$200,000 (US$140,000) and Aus$500,000.
A spokesperson for the minister told Nature in a statement: “In making his decision on rejecting 6 of the 593 projects, the Minister believes those rejected do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest.”
After the minister’s decision was announced on 24 December 2021, two members of the ARC’s College of Experts, the group of academics that makes the final recommendation about what projects to fund, resigned in protest. In January, more than 140 members signed an open letter to the minister expressing their concerns about the vetoes and asking for the government to ensure that the grant-assessment process is rigorous and conducted with integrity.
“The ministerial veto feels like it’s almost on a whim,” says Andrew Francis, a mathematician at Western Sydney University in Penrith, Australia, and one of the two members who resigned. “It’s such an affront to that process and the hard work that so many people put into making what are really extremely difficult decisions about which grant proposals to fund and not fund.”
Francis worries that the threat of a ministerial veto could see researchers skewing their research proposals in an attempt to second-guess what the minister in charge is feeling. He has heard from climate-change researchers who changed the framing of their grant applications because of concerns about political considerations.
The minister should not have the right to overrule the recommendations of specialist assessors when the grant applications abide by the government’s funding rules, says Ronald Clarke, a chemist at the University of Sydney in Australia. “With the minister overruling things, it’s as if he’s saying all those reviewers and the College of Experts are idiots and he knows better,” he says.
Tip of the iceberg
The ARC isn’t the only funding body that some researchers think is at risk from political overreach. The Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), established in 2015, controls $20 billion worth of funding and has dispensed around $2.25 billion of that since 2019. Although an advisory board of medical experts advises on the priorities of the fund, the funding decisions are made by the government’s minister for health.
It’s “really unusual that a politician, no matter how well intended, gets to set what the calls for research will be and then gets to decide on top of peer review what will be funded”, says Warwick Anderson, the former chief executive of the main funding agency for Australian medical research, the National Health and Medical Research Council, who is now the secretary-general of the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization in Strasbourg, France.
“Particularly for medical research, the citizens of Australia have an expectation that research will serve their interest, not the political interest.”
A spokesperson for the minister for health, Greg Hunt, said that the minister is required to consider the priorities set by an independent expert advisory board when making decisions about MRFF grants, and independent grant-assessment committees of experts also provide peer-reviewed recommendations on which projects to fund.